It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The 12-year-old boy helped raise the cheetah, after he and his father found it as a cub. The boy, named Xan, lives on a farm in South Africa, where he and Duma form a strong bond, but their friendship cannot last forever. An emergency forces the family to move to the city, and Xan realizes that Duma, now fully grown, should be returned to the wild.
There might be reasonable ways of doing that. Perhaps Xan (Alex Michaeletos) could call the animal welfare people. Instead, without telling his mother (Hope Davis), he decides to personally return Duma to the wilderness. There is a scene of the cheetah riding in the sidecar of an old motorcycle, which Xan drives into the desert. It could be a cute scene, maybe funny, in a different kind of movie, but "Duma" takes itself seriously, and is not a cute children's story but a grand tale of adventure.
Xan has courage but not a lot of common sense. He is headed into the Kalahari Desert, where to get lost is, usually, to die. Of course the motorcycle runs out of gas. Then he meets another wanderer in the desert, named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), who once worked in the mines of Johannesburg but now prefers to work alone, perhaps for reasons we would rather not know. He warns Xan of the dangers ahead ("That is a place of many teeth, my friend; that is a place to die"). He has the knowledge to save the boy and the cheetah. But what is his agenda?
"Duma" is an astonishing film by Carroll Ballard, the director who is fascinated by the relationship between humans, animals and the wilderness. He works infrequently, but unforgettably. Perhaps you have seen his "The Black Stallion" (1979), about a boy and a horse who are shipwrecked, and begin a friendship that leads to a crucial horse race. Or his "Never Cry Wolf" (1983), based on the Farley Mowat book about a man who goes to live in the wild with wolves. Or the wonderful "Fly Away Home" (1996), about a 13-year-old girl who solos in an ultralight aircraft, leading a flock of pet geese south from Canada.