There’s a tiger in the woods. A real one, too, not something made up by some kid.
Though it was found by one.
Young Rob Horton found the creature while wandering in the misty woods one morning before heading off to school. It was there, big as life, sitting in a cage not far behind the Kentucky Star motel where Rob and his dad have been living ever since Rob’s mom died.
Rob fully intended to keep the huge stripey cat a secret. I mean, there really isn’t anyone he could tell, truth be told. Maybe his dad. But they don’t talk a lot. Other than him, well, the list is very short.
Rob, you see, is something of a pariah at school because of the angry rash on his legs that won’t go away. Everybody thinks it’s catching, so they steer clear of him—when they aren’t shoving him around.
Then, however, something changes. Rob accidentally makes the acquaintance of one Sistine Bailey. The kids bully her, too. But Sistine isn’t one to just sit there and take it, like Rob. Sistine plants her feet, screws up her face and roars back at any abuser who comes too close.
When he sees her do that, Rob knows he has to tell Sistine about the tiger. After all, she’s gotta to be part tiger herself. And on top of that, she doesn’t seem to care a bit about Rob’s rash. Which makes her A-OK in his book.
There is, of course, one big problem with showing a new friend something as amazing as a tiger in the woods. And it’s an even bigger problem when the new friend is also part tiger herself. ‘Cause the first thing that a roar-ready girl will want to know is how this incredible creature came to be there.
And the next is … how do we set it free?!
Rob is pretty sure that bullies and a never-healing rash are now the least of his problems.
We’re told that while cages can be made of metal, they can also be constructs of our own making, too. Both Rob and Sistine (not to mention Rob’s Dad) are trapped by emotional cages that they’ve built to “protect themselves.” And we see the young friends work to help each another break free—including standing up to bullies.
Friendship, respect and love are all a part of the story’s eventual solution. And it’s clear that family is an important key to making it through difficult moments in life. And transversely, without that loving support, problems can grow.
Upon meeting Sistine, Rob remembers looking at a book filled with pictures of the Sistine Chapel. Rob then notes that Sistine’s name is representative of “a picture of God making the world, like it says in Genesis.” Sistine is impressed by his insight.
Early on in the film, Rob makes friends with a motel maid named Willie May. And she makes note of his rash-covered legs, suggesting that the rash is caused by bottled up sadness over his mother’s death. In fact, she also talks of the anger that she senses is tying Sistine up in knots, too. Her insights are so on the mark that Sistine proclaims that the woman is a “prophetess,” and Rob agrees.
Upon seeing the tiger, Willie May declares: “Ain’t no need to doubt the fierceness of God when He can make something like that.” Willie May also tends to call upon the Lord’s name regularly with exclamations of “Dear Jesus,” “Lord Almighty,” “Lord God” and the like that can sometimes teeter between earnest prayers and something closer to taking God’s name in vain.
Rob remembers an afternoon picnic when his mother talked about God making the green in the trees. Someone speaks of an animal being in heaven.
Sistine reports that her parents are separated because her father had an affair with his secretary. Sistine kisses Rob’s cheek.
Bullies throw things at both Rob and Sistine; the bullies also push and shove the pair to the ground. After an offscreen scuffle, Sistine has a bruise around her eye and skinned knees. Rob doesn’t normally stand up to the boys that bully him, though Rob’s father says you “got ta’ fight ’em, or they won’t never leave you alone.”
Near the entrance to the woods behind the Kentucky Star motel is a sign that reads: “Beauchamp Property – Trespassers Will Be Shot!” And that threatening message sums up the presence of Mr. Beauchamp himself, the grumpy, grizzled owner of the property and the Kentucky Star. He’s mostly bluff and bluster, but he’s definitely not a pleasant or approachable adult figure, either.
Beauchamp also wears a pistol at his hip, with which he threatens both man and beast. He threatens to skin the tiger for a coat. In fact, Beauchamp is so seemingly threatening that when he and young Rob are talking at one point, another adult asks if the boy needs help.
Then there’s the threat of the tiger itself. The huge cat leaps, roaring and slashing, at the bars of its cage several times. And though it stays calm around both Rob and Sistine, there is an ever-present sense that the tiger is all sharp claws and teeth that could turn at a moment’s notice. Rob is given the charge to feed the cat and is handed a gory paper bag filled with raw meat. The boy pulls his hands back covered in blood.
[Spoiler Warning] It’s no secret from early on that Sistine is determined to set the tiger free. And, of course, when a wild tiger is set free in a local wooded area, any number of potentially deadly things could happen. Parents should be aware that eventually the tiger does move to attack someone and is shot and killed.
We learn that Rob’s mother died of cancer.
A number of references incorporate the word “d–n,” such as “d–n straight,” “d–n him” and “d–n fool!” In addition, we hear name-calling uses of “stupid,” “dummy” and “bozo.”
We’re given the sense that Rob’s father may have a problem with alcohol since his wife passed away. But we don’t see him drinking.
Sistine declares that all people in the South are “ignorant!” Beauchamp calls Rob’s father a “worthless daddy.” In flashback, we see the physical effects of cancer on Rob’s mom. The tiger urinates on Beauchamp. When Rob ushers Sistine into their motel room, he suddenly realizes that there are dirty clothes scattered about. A couple pair of undershorts jump up embarrassingly (in his imagination) and he grabs them and stuffs them out of sight.
Bestselling children’s author Kate DiCamillo wrote the award-winning book that this movie is based on. And it’s a compelling story of a tiger, a pair of friends and the cages (metal for the tiger and emotional for the kids) that trap all three.
Translated from book to screen, that makes for a mostly content-free bit of family entertainment, save a bit of peril and a handful of mild profanities. It’s a movie that talks of the value of friendship and the need to let go of bottled-up emotions—such as overwhelming sadness and bubbling anger—that can control and hurt us.
The problem is, it’s not always all that easy to turn a great and thoughtful book into a great and thoughtful movie. In this latter form, The Tiger Rising is an OK and generally pleasant pic that may well fall short of young fans’ expectations based on the book.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.