Judge Mitchell Hattaway's five cats will all be angry at him for a week after reading his put-down of this feline film.
Two infant tiger cubs, separated from their parents and each other.
After having helmed the dark World War II film Enemy at the Gates, The Bear director Jean-Jacques Annaud returns to the animal kingdom for Two Brothers. Is this another captivating tale of animal life, or is it a mixed-message cartoon?
Facts of the Case
Kumal and Sangha, two tiger cubs being raised by their parents in the jungles of French Indo-China, are separated after one is sold to a circus owner and the other is adopted by the son of a government official. After spending a year apart, the two brothers will be reunited, and will try to make their way back home.
If you're expecting another film along the lines of The Bear, think again. Annaud has abandoned the gritty, primal realism of that film for a story that really wouldn't be out of place in an animated Disney feature. Some of the plotting here gets downright silly, and at times the animals are a little too anthropomorphized.
The film begins with a little soft-core tiger action, after which we meet the title characters. (Yeah, that's right. We get to see the mommy tiger and the daddy tiger getting it on. It doesn't get too graphic, though; Annaud cuts away to some shots of smiling statues right about the time things start to get hot and heavy.) The tigers' world is turned upside down by the arrival of Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce, Memento), a former ivory poacher who, following a downturn in the ivory market, has turned to looting ancient temples. (In other words, Man has entered the jungle.) A member of McRory's party spots one of the tigers and a chase ensues; the female manages to take Sangha to safety, but McRory kills the male. McRory finds Kuma, and decides to keep him; McRory is later double-crossed by a village elder who was helping him in his acquisition of antiquities, and ends up losing Kumal, who is sold by the elder to a circus owner.
McRory, who now has a reputation as a tiger-slayer, runs into some governmental red tape when he attempts to leave the country with his plunder, so in exchange for bureaucratic help he agrees to aid the local French administrator (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Cheech & Chong's The Corsican Brothers), who has planned a hunting trip for a visiting prince (Oanh Nguyen, Clockstoppers). The prince wounds the mother tiger and Raoul (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland), son of the administrator, finds Sangha and decides to keep the cub as his pet. A few months pass, and Sangha injures the family dog; the tiger is then taken to the royal palace, where he is placed in the prince's zoo.
A year passes. Sangha, after being mistreated by his handlers, has developed a serious taste for blood; Kumal has since become the star of the circus, and depends on his trainers for his survival. The prince decides to hold a battle between Sangha and another tiger (this type of spectacle is a family tradition), and Kumal is chosen to be Sangha's opponent. The two brothers are reunited for the fight, and that's when the film starts going downhill.
Up until this point in the narrative, Two Brothers is actually quite entertaining, but from this moment on Annaud undermines what has come before by turning the tigers into cartoon characters, which is a fatal mistake. The last section of the film chronicles the journey of the brothers as they head back to their jungle home, and their escapades come across as something you'd see on the Animal Planet version of America's Funniest Home Videos. (Sure, the story wasn't brutally realistic up to this point, but it had never strayed into the ridiculous.) This is also the time in the film during which Annaud really wants to hammer home his message, but that message is lost amidst the shenanigans. I mean, it's a little hard to care about the mistreatment of these animals while they're being shown jumping into a bathtub with a shrieking woman or chasing a bus driver up a tree.
That brings me to my main problem with the film. This is a story about the evils of removing tigers from their native habitat and training them for the amusement of man or to be pets, but when you think about it, the tigers shown in the film don't live in their native habitat and have been trained for the amusement of man, which to me seems a little hypocritical. (I know, I know—the film is meant to trigger an emotional response, and I'm not supposed to think about such things, but I couldn't help myself.) Also, the predatory nature of the animals has been softened, which doesn't help. There are times when the tigers act like nothing more than big kittens, and I'm not sure that helps Annaud's cause; too often during the film the tigers do look like they'd make good pets. I'm not saying we need to see the animals dismember someone, but I do think the shot of Sangha curled up in bed beside Raoul does more harm then good. (There's also a scene in which Kumal's circus training actually ends up helping the tigers escape some hunters, but I guess maybe Annaud intended this to be ironic.)
The human side of the story is rather lame. In his commentary Annaud flatly states that this film is about the tigers, but I don't see why the other side has to be so, well, boring. The romance between McRory and Nai-Rae, the village elder's daughter, goes nowhere. The efforts of the French administrator to build a road through the village are introduced, made to seem a big deal, and then dropped. You could pretty much skip all the scenes not centered on the tigers and not miss anything.
The acting is somewhat of a mixed bag. Pearce is quite good, and he thankfully has more screen time than any of the other two-legged members of the cast. Freddie Highmore is also very good (which hopefully bodes well for his turn as Charlie Bucket in Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), as is Maï Anh Le, who is featured as Naï-Rae (she's also quite attractive), but many of the other members of the cast overact, especially Jean-Claude Dreyfus, who hams it up rather shamelessly.
The audio/video presentation is a bit of a letdown. Annaud shot much of the animal footage on digital video (this allowed the cameras to roll for longer amounts of time than would have been possible with film), and much of this footage has a rather dull, drab visual quality; in fact, it looks much like what you'd expect to see on a run-of-the-mill television nature documentary. The non-animal footage, on the other hand, can look quite good, with warm, nicely saturated colors (some of the jungle shots are downright gorgeous). The audio fares better, although for the most part it's not a particularly lively mix. The surrounds only come alive during the jungle scenes (the tigers' roars are mixed into every channel), and on occasion during scenes featuring large crowds. Dialogue is always clear and well integrated.
The extras aren't much; they're too often too short (many of them run under four minutes) and uninformative. (I myself would have liked more information on the animatronics used in this film; with the exception of one hyperactive duck, these effects are excellent.) There's also a 35-minute featurette entitled "Wild About Tigers," but it's nothing special. The only real meat can be found in some excerpts from Annaud's shooting journal and in his commentary. The journal is quite interesting (although I imagine some will find it too full of technical jargon), as is the commentary. Annaud covers every aspect of the process of the film's creation during the commentary, and expounds on the difficulties inherent in such a project. Odd thing is, the commentary and journal seem a bit out of place, as the other extras all seemed aimed at children.
I wanted to like this film, but in the end it came up short. All the good intentions in the world couldn't make up for its flaws. That being said, it wouldn't make a bad rental for the kiddies, or for anyone who just wants to see the cute little kitties.
Guilty for anyone over the age of ten. Not guilty for anyone under.
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Scales of Justice
• "Wild About Tigers" Featurette
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