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Imagine growing up on a farm in South Africa. Imagine further that one day you and your dad rescue an abandoned cheetah cub. Finally, imagine being 12 years old and watching your new "pet" mature into the fastest land animal on earth. It would be, in a word, paradise.
But paradise is lost when the tweenage Xan's devoted dad, Peter, dies of cancer, forcing Xan and his mom to move to Johannesburg so that she can find work. And the city is no place for a cheetah. Duma (the Swahili word for cheetah) will have to be returned to the wild.
Before that happens, though, the big kitty escapes from the confines of their city apartment and makes its way to Xan's school. Pandemonium ensues. Xan and Duma eventually manage to elude the police sent to hunt the cat, and fearful that the authorities will imprison Duma, Xan sets out on a journey to find a game preserve where Duma can roam freely. Soon the pair is hurtling across the desert (Xan on his dad's motorbike and Duma in the sidecar) and plunging through jungles and rivers. Along the way, they meet a mysterious prodigal wanderer named Ripkuna, a man who's eager—perhaps too eager—to help them on their quest.
Peter, Kristin, Xan and Duma share an idyllic family life. Peter is a hardworking farmer and a tender father and husband. He teaches Xan practical lessons ("Never underestimate what you can do with baling wire") and fun ones as well—like how to ride a motorcycle. After rescuing Duma, Peter wisely tells Xan, "We can't keep him forever. ... He's got to go back to the world he came from one day."
After Xan leaves a note for his mom and flees with Duma, she goes in search of him, putting out missing person posters, chartering a helicopter and even driving out into the bush herself. In the desert, Ripkuna (or Rip, for short) sacrificially gives Xan and Duma some of his water and rescues the pair from certain doom several times.
Xan saves Rip's life twice as well. The first time, Rip is trapped in a diamond mine after its partial collapse, and Xan helps dig him out—half way at least. (He leaves Rip to finish the job and runs away because he doesn't trust the older man.) Later, Xan saves Rip's life after he's rendered unconscious by the bites of a swarm of tsetse flies. (Xan risks his life to go summon help from Rip's village.) When Rip regains consciousness, he apologizes tearfully to his wife and children for abandoning them.
Rip and Xan find some abandoned stone houses with many skulls on the floor. Rip says, "This is full of angry spirits." Later, Rip talks about the guiding spirits of his ancestors, commenting, "The old ones, they talk to me." (It's unclear whether he means this literally or figuratively.) The older man also tells Xan his view of life and death: "People go when they are ready to go, not when you are. We are all just travelers on the same river, grandparents, parents, sons and daughters. We all have our time on the river. We do what we can before we disappear." Xan reads a poem that includes the line, "Thank with brief thanksgiving whatever gods may be."
The remedy for Rip's fly bites involves a woman applying leaves and paste to his face and chanting a prayer—or perhaps a spell—in her tribal tongue.
The closest thing to sexual content comes from the family parrot when Peter kisses his wife. The bird squawks, "Hey sexy momma, your place or mine?" Dad immediately responds with a correcting word to Xan: "What did I tell you about teaching the parrot questionable phrases?"
Xan is ambushed by three bullies in the school bathroom, and they begin to rough him up when Duma comes to the rescue and scares them off. Duma feasts on the carcass of a gazelle.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
A 12-year-old taking his dad's motorcycle without permission, then piloting it a long way across the African wilderness, is not behavior any parent would want to see emulated. Xan scares off a bunch of people on safari using a snake, then he and Rip steal their food. The deception and theft in this scene are played as comedy.
When I was young, one of my favorite TV shows was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Every Sunday afternoon, Marlin Perkins taught me about wild animals while his fearless, seemingly invincible sidekick, Jim, traipsed into the jungle to find them. Cheetahs in particular captured my imagination.
So it's no surprise that this beautiful, romanticized story of a young boy and his cheetah mesmerized me. I quickly set aside my notions of "reality" as Xan and Duma set off with very few supplies, food or water into the African bush. Suspension of disbelief is key to enjoying the film; obviously, a preadolescent boy and a domesticated cheetah wouldn't have lasted more than a couple of days. Such benefit of the doubt is also necessary when Xan's mother greets the boy's return with only a smile and hug—nary a hint of anger over his long disappearance is evident in her expressions. It's the same kind of suspension that's needed, by the way, to fully engage in Huck Finn's exploits on the mighty Mississippi or Timmy's relationship with the ever loyal Lassie.
That said, the beauty of the film goes beyond Xan's enchanting (if not realistic) relationship with Duma. Rip undergoes his own significant character transformation, slowly becoming a man with genuine remorse for his poor choices in life, and he imparts a wealth of wisdom to Xan. In a way, Rip becomes a second father to a boy who has lost his.
As for aesthetics, animal-story director extraordinaire Carroll Ballard is brilliant at capturing Duma's expressions and Africa's vast and untamed landscapes. Young children might be startled by some of the wild-animal sequences involving lions, warthogs and crocodiles. But for everyone else, Duma offers breathtaking visuals and a compelling story about love and redemption.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Alex Michaeletos as Xan; Campbell Scott as Peter; Hope Davis as Kristin; Eamonn Walker as Ripkuna
Carroll Ballard ( Fly Away Home)