To watch the boy-and-his-cheetah drama Duma is to witness a tug-of-war between '70s-Disney smarm and the socially responsible smarts of kid-driven flicks like the great Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The setup reeks of potential saccharin: A well-to-do Aussie family comes upon an orphaned cheetah cub and adopts it as their pet, knowing all the while that the critter will have to be returned to the wild when it reaches a certain age. Until that day arrives, you can bet we're going to get scenes of the adorable Duma cuddling up with a rooster, undergoing potty training and scampering about the house like a kitten with particularly exotic markings. The awww factor of these sequences is huge and undeniable.
Come the naturally ordained day of reckoning, 12-year-old Xan (Alex Michaeletos) decides to heed the wishes of his now-deceased father (Campbell Scott) and take Duma back from whence he came. The ensuing journey is a beautifully photographed but morally hazy quest, in which Xan and Duma encounter fearsome predators, evil poachers and a mysterious Aborigine who might be friend or foe (or, worse, an ethnic stereotype).
The film preaches that everything in nature has its place that wild creatures must remain just that yet director Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) hedges his bets by keeping the animal-on-animal violence tastefully off-screen. And far from taking his place in a circle of life, Xan sometimes appears to have entered an ethical gray zone in which one learns to pilfer copious amounts of food from a sumptuous outback banquet by faking a snake attack. (Don't try this at Sizzler.)
The movie's true pull can be found in the imploring eyes of Duma himself, and in the wondrously odd little sounds half-bark, half-chirp he and his kind emanate. Animals like these have such innate allure that they don't need human sidekicks to be bankable as a bunch of penguins found out not too long ago.