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In 'Duma,' journey to the wild rings true

One of the best family movies of 2005 -- actually, one of last year's best films, period -- is finally opening in Massachusetts today. Unfortunately, you'll have to drive to Worcester to see it.

''Duma" is an exquisitely filmed, emotionally transfixing epic about a white South African boy's journey to return his pet cheetah to the wild. It was made by Carroll Ballard, the former cinematographer whose films as director -- ''The Black Stallion" in 1979, ''Never Cry Wolf" in 1983, ''Fly Away Home" in 1996 -- are among the greatest modern movies about the relationship between man and animals. ''Duma" is no different: Ballard gives us nature in all its vast, dangerous glory and then asks us to ponder where ''tame" ends and ''wild" begins, in ourselves and in the animals we think we know.

Yet Warner Brothers has thrown the film away, releasing it in haphazard limited engagements throughout 2005 and never giving it the publicity push it deserves. (It will be released on DVD in May.) Their loss, is all I can say. ''Duma" is too suspenseful for the youngest children, but for anyone older than 8 or 9, it evokes nothing less than awe at the harsh beauty of the natural world.

Delight, too, when the tiny baby cheetah is rescued from the middle of a rural highway by a South African farmer (Campbell Scott) and his 12-year-old son, Xander (Alexander Michaletos). The cub's mother has been dispatched (off-screen) by a lion, and the human family -- Hope Davis plays Xan's mother -- takes him in, names him ''Duma" (Swahili for cheetah), and treats him as you would a stray housecat. An increasingly large housecat.

These scenes are adorable, but trouble hovers just outside the movie's frame, and eventually it lands. Just as he's preparing to re-introduce Duma to the wild, the father dies of a heart attack (again, discreetly), and mother and son have to move to the city. I don't know what sort of ''no pets" clauses they have in South Africa, but Duma does not adapt well. Xan takes it upon himself to complete his father's plan and, swiping the old man's motorcycle, runs away into the endless, unforgiving African horizon. Duma goes in the sidecar.

Here's where the movie proper begins, and it bears a slight resemblance to the old Nicolas Roeg film ''Walkabout." The trek crosses salt flats, deserts, wooded jungles, and crocodile-infested rivers -- by motorcycle, by parasail, on foot, and by raft. The threat of death is real and omnipresent, yet Xan is resourceful, and he's soon joined by another returning wanderer in the person of Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker of HBO's ''Oz"), an escaped convict hoping to find redemption in his tribal village.

Xan doesn't trust the older man at first, and neither do we, but by the time the two are pranking a tourist safari to get at the catering, they've come to an understanding. Ripkuna is called on to deliver the screenplay's life lessons, and if these are on the fuzzy side, they're given true heft by the physically stunning surroundings. The climax, with Xan risking his life to save Ripkuna's, is more eloquent than anything the characters actually say to each other.

Ballard and his cameraman Werner Maritz turn the South African landscape into a place beyond history or human culture, a world before the fall. There be lions here -- and baboons, elephants, hippos, and rhinos -- and they are defiantly un-cute. Nor is Duma anthropomorphized into a cuddly stand-in for human emotions. The director knows the cat is the mystery at the heart of his tale, and by the end of ''Duma," Xan knows it, too.

So do we. Unlike so many movies we feed our children -- ''Chicken Little," ''Madagascar," ''Shaggy Dog" -- ''Duma" dares to treat animals as animals and young viewers as grown-ups. No wonder it couldn't find an audience.

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