2004, Universal. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Freddie Highmore, Oanh Nguyen, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Stéphanie Lagarde, Vincent Scarito, Maï Anh Le.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Kids & Up*|
Content advisory: Some tense and stressful scenes including brief mistreatment of an animal; a sequence of animal violence and a brief animal attack on a human; a couple of tiger shootings.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Jean-Jacques Annaud is well known as the director of the 1988 family classic The Bear, and in his new film, Two Brothers, Guy Pearce is the best-known actor and in one sense has the biggest part. Yet the lone over-the-title credit is "Introducing Kumal and Sangha." Clearly, this is Kumal and Sangha’s film. And yet Kumal and Sangha, the title brothers, don’t strictly exist. They’re tigers, and, while Annaud uses real beasts as brilliantly as he did in The Bear, his tigrine protagonists are each played in cubhood and adulthood by any number of real cats, male and female.
It doesn’t matter. On the screen, timid Kumal and aggressive Sangha are as real as the human characters in many another film, and more so than some. From the delightful early scenes of the two young cubs wrestling and playing, pestering their tolerant parents, and so on, to the trials and triumphs of the adult cats, Kumal and Sangha will make you believe in their story — in part because the tigers playing them are perfectly in character.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s. (The story itself is set in the 1930s.)
In an early scene we find writer-explorer-hunter Aidan McRory (Pearce) treasure-hunting for ancient statuary in an unnamed East Asian jungle, where he runs across a tiger and shoots it. The film is critical of McRory’s colonialist treasure hunting, and definitely doesn’t like to see tigers get shot. Even so, the point about unscupulous profiteering is made elliptically rather than heavy-handedly, and the shooting of the tiger, at least at the moment it occurs, is obviously warranted.
Annaud and co-writer Alain Godard also incorporate a number of contrived but nifty twists into the story, such as a stressful time in the life of timid Kumal that later pays off during a crisis that his particular experiences have made him better able to deal with than his dominant sibling Sangha.
Annaud’s real glory, though, is in eliciting and/or capturing the moments he wants from his photogenic performers, aided by cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou (Man on the Train). Some moments seem breathtakingly candid, as when an aged adult tiger in a circus cage, who’s been avoiding the noisy youngster in the adjacent cage, slides his tail through the bars of both cages and lets the lonely cub play with its twitching end. Other moments are obviously artifice but none the less stunning for that, as when the cubs’ mother desperately chases down a moving pickup carrying one of her cubs in a crate and does her best to spring him.
Annaud doesn’t confer human speech or thoughts upon his tigers, but he does anthropomorphize and sentimentalize them in subtler ways. Kumal and Sangha each bond as cubs with an affectionate human, Kumal (in a charmingly tender scene) with McRory, and Sangha with a boy named Raoul (Freddie Highmore), the son of a local administrator. I don’t know how long tiger memories are in real life, but I know I wouldn’t want to see it put to the test the way it happens here.
But Two Brothers is a fable, almost a fairy tale, set long ago in a land far away, and populated with characters who are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes, except for McRory and Raoul (and, with only an additional exception or two, mostly unsympathetic or ridiculous stereotypes). The point isn’t what tigers are really like; the point is simply that these magnificent, splendid creatures deserve our respect.
Kumal and Sangha face much adversity in their lives, including capture, harsh training for entertainment purposes, and attempts to hunt them down. Raised in captivity, the brothers may never be able to go back to the wild, since they’ve never learned to hunt and (not being afraid of humans and humans being easy prey) will eventually take to harassing and ultimately killing people. (This information should have been deployed earlier in the film, as it would have set up a wacky post-escape slapstick sequence and made it less arbitrary.)
Sensitive children may find the bleakness and tension of some of the brothers’ misfortunes a bit much, though these are hardly the dominant notes in the film and there’s more than enough tenderness, comedy, and triumph to balance things out. The final image is a perfect storybook ending, and a satisfying resolution to what is so far the year’s best family film.