Directed by: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring: Kumal (tiger), Sangha (tiger), Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Freddie Highmore, Oanh Nguyen
Because this film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who brought us The Bear in 1988, audiences might assume that Two Brothers is merely a variation on that earlier film, shot entirely on location in the wilderness. It's not.
And if that's what you're expecting going into it, you'll end up, like some of the film's harsh critics, being disappointed. But it would be a tragedy if needlessly comparing Two Brothers to a film done 16 years ago keeps audiences from enjoying the incredible accomplishments of Annaud's newest work -- its breathtaking footage of Asian tigers and variety of exotic locations in Thailand and Cambodia.
Annaud creates more than animal movies. He won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1977, for his Black and White in Color. He's also made Quest for Fire (1981), The Name of the Rose (1986, with Sean Connery), Seven Years in Tibet (1997, with Brad Pitt) and Enemy at the Gates (2001, with Jude Law and Ed Harris).
You'll notice that these other movies have all been set in various times in the past, making it quite evident that Annaud loves historical locations, costumes, sets and as much pageantry as his budgets allow. These elements are the surprising perks in Two Brothers -- but you'll miss them if all you're waiting for is tigers.
In massive temple ruins similar to Ankgor Wat, two adult tigers meet and frolic. The result is two adorable male cubs, which investigate their world with the awe-inspiring curiosity and wonder of all baby animals. They love one another, and when the timid brother Sangha scampers up a tree for safety, the more aggressive one, Kumal, helps him down.
The animals communicate with expressive tiger moans and cries and whines, not in human cartoon-like voices. Everything is happy in the idyllic wilderness until the shadows of acquisitiveness from thousands of miles away come in to destroy it. Intruding into the tigers' sanctuary is Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce, who was so unforgettable as the man trying to regain his memory in Memento, 2000). McRory is a British adventurer and author as famous for hunting wild beasts as he is for robbing colonies of their archaeological treasures. (The scenes of McRory and his native crew chopping off the heads of temple statues to transport them to European collectors were horrifying, and sadly, all too real, since cultural mutilation is still going on in sites all over the world.)
McRory unintentionally kills the tiger father, then takes the cub Kumal as a pet. When the plunderer is arrested for thievery, he is separated from the cub. Poor Kumal ends up in a circus, where he is forced to do tricks, including running through a hoop of fire.
An obsequious colonial administrator, Normandin (Parisian actor Jean-Claude Dreyfus), rescues McRory and offers him hospitality in his home, where McRory meets the man's flirtatious wife and son Raoul (Freddie Highmore, soon to be seen with Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland).
The native prince (Saigon-born Oanh Nguyen, in a memorable performance) comes to the town for a hunting party and everyone loads up on elephants, swaying like ships on the sea. The mother tiger is shot, but flees, and Raoul rescues the other cub, Sangha. Alas, the gentle cub is terrorized by the family's yapping canine. When Sangha understandably fights back, he ends up in the menagerie of the prince, where he is trained to be vicious.
Time in captivity passes. (Be assured, animal lovers, that these sad scenes will indeed pass.) The cubs grow up and are forced to enter a sports arena, where the townspeople have been promised a duel to the death. Instead, the tiger brothers recognize one another and romp like kittens. They escape, have a grand old time wreaking havoc in the city, and eventually return to the jungle and are reunited with their surviving mother.
Is this a movie for children?
If prepped by their parents -- with some at-home history lessons, perhaps -- some kids will enjoy the historical beauty of the film and not mind the atypical slowness of the scenes with humans. (It might help to check out the film's Web site, www.twobrothersmovie.net.) However, others too used to short-term, action-packed Animal Planet quick-cuts could get pretty darn fidgety with this film.
But for adults who can appreciate languorous beauty, Two Brothers is a rare treat.
-- reviewed by Marci Miller