Brother tiger cubs teach kids—and parents—about humans’ compassion potential.
Thursday, July 8, 2004
For every parent who’s complained about vapid, cartoonish family films, consider this alternative: the tooth-and-nail survival story of two tiger cubs separated during infancy and cast to the winds of fate in French-occupied Indochina. Kids won’t pick up the nuances—a choir of indigenous village kids bleats out “La Marseillaise” for a visiting magistrate while Western explorers dynamite ancient temples—they’ll be too busy clinging to their chairs.
Animal thespians Kumal and Sangha suffer enough slings and arrows to make Jean-Jacques Annaud’s nature epic The Bear look like Andy Warhol’s Sleep. They encounter kind people (Guy Pearce’s morally conflicted hunter) and cruel ones, but even the worst have their humanizing moments; they are driven by misunderstanding, by poverty, by the need to choose between equally undesirable outcomes. One tiger befriends a dignitary’s young son (Freddie Highmore), and their moments of interspecies companionship, natural and unforced on camera, optimistically suggest that the potential of the human spirit for tender mercies makes us the rightful custodians of the Earth.
Yet the film’s simplest pleasure is its naturalism—the illusion it creates of observing the animals undetected. We watch the mating pair meet in a tumbledown, overgrown ruin (while they get it on, Annaud cuts to a reaction shot from a nearby macaque, who seems scandalized). The tigers nurse and raise the cubs with what appears to be genuine tenderness.
It’s easy to set aside the skepticism engendered by what is obviously the performance of trained animals and be absorbed in the moment, and this quality will make the film attractive to children. Adults will likely wonder whether it is disingenuous to use animal actors in a story that champions the need to leave wild animals alone.
In either event, Two Brothers is the kind of all-ages sleeper that will slip in and out of theaters (unsupported as it is by a marketing blitzkrieg and tie-in toys) all too soon. More’s the pity, as the film is an excellent choice for older children who are inclined to ask questions about ethics. There are ample teaching moments, handled with a pleasantly light touch—questions about the affairs of nations, about loyalty, about responsibility, about the balance between human welfare and the rights of animals. Younger children might find it too scary and perhaps even baffling, for though the plot is relatively simple, its context is not. Yet it is a sincere and thoughtful film, qualities far too scarce in all-ages entertainment.
Two Brothers (3 stars)
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Freddie Highmore, Kumal, Sangha
(Rated PG, 108 min.)