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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Only you can save the cheetah

Why penguins and not cheetahs?

Dan Fellman would like to know. The fate of the wonderful movie “Duma” hangs in the balance. If it doesn’t show growth at the Chicago box office this weekend, its future is in doubt.

Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Brothers, has two films about animals in release right now: “Duma,” about a boy and a cheetah who trek across the Kalahari desert, and “March of the Penguins,” about several thousand penguins who trek across the ice floes of Antarctica.

Both films have won rave reviews. “Duma” has a perfect 100 percent on the Tomatometer at RottenTomatoes.com; not a single critic dislikes it. “March of the Penguins” scored 94 percent on the Tomatometer; among major critics, only three were negative (“The Central Park Zoo is cheaper…and it has snow monkeys and beer,” groused the Village Voice).

So howcum the penguins are the summer’s surprise box office hit, and “Duma” is fighting for its life? The movie was directed by Carroll Ballard, whose previous films involving animals have become classics: “The Black Stallion,” “Never Cry Wolf,” “Fly Away Home.” His new film, based on real life, tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who raises a cheetah cub and then tries all by himself to return it to the wild.

That’s actually a real cheetah (four, actually) in the same shots with young actor Alex Michaeletos. And those are real penguins, all right, standing for months without food or water at 60 below zero, incubating their precious eggs.

Duma” is a well-crafted family movie in a marketplace dominated by overgrown video games. Remarkably, Fellman says, its salvation may come not from families, but from adults attending by themselves.

Warners opened the movie in the spring in test markets, using TV ads to pitch it to kids. “We struck out,” says Fellman. But it got a positive review from Scott Foundas in Variety. I read his review, asked for a Chicago screening, and Richard Roeper and I decided to review it on Ebert & Roeper.

That inspired Warners to give it a chance in the Chicago market, where it opened last Friday. It got E&R’s two thumbs up, and praise from my Sun-Times (and RogerEbert.com) review (“a grand tale of adventure”), Michael Wilmington of the Tribune (“sheer scenic magnificence and screen animal magnetism”), Dann Gire of the Daily Herald (“keeps us in gut-tight suspense without scaring the bejabbers out of younger viewers”), and Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com (“the greatest kids movie of the year”).

So how were the crowds?

“Disappointing,” Fellman told me. “We averaged around $5,000 per screen. However, with the positive response we got from audiences, and the press support and good word-of-mouth, we think we might see substantial improvement this week.

“What surprised us was that while the kid-oriented TV ads failed in the earlier markets, our print-based and review-driven approach in Chicago got a much larger non-family percentage –- adults attending on their own. And the response from them was overwhelmingly positive. It’s just that there weren’t enough of them.”

So it comes down to this: Either those who loved “Duma” convince their friends to see the movie this weekend, or “we’ll need to regroup,” says Fellman.

And you know what that means.

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