Disclaimer: I do not have children. Duma is a "family film" -- one that is intended primarily for a youth audience, but with sufficient story and production quality to be acceptable to adults along for the ride. Since I can only guess at reactions from the target audience, I have to review the movie from an adult viewpoint on its own merits as a piece of filmmaking.
From that perspective, I have to say that Duma is disappointing. The story involves a young boy (perhaps 12 years old) who adopts an orphaned cheetah cub, names it Duma, and raises it on the family farm in rural Africa. He lives a rather idyllic existence with his mother and father until circumstances cause him to make a fateful decision to take Duma back to the wild on an impulsive solo trek to the veldt. His journey is filled with small moments of tension and danger and forces him to accept the company of a man he does not trust.
The story line plays out in a predictable, linear fashion. Again, I want to reiterate that the technique is probably appropriate for children to keep it easy to follow and connect with, but I am not qualified to pass judgment on that. For an adult, the complications and plot devices that are introduced in order to further the action seem arbitrary and too trivially dismissed. Each tension point is immediately resolved within a maximum of four minutes (usually much shorter) so that there is no danger of becoming involved or emotionally invested in the dangers, the interpersonal conflicts, or the apprehension that each should engender.
The acting in the film ranges from inoffensive to melodramatic to amateurish. The best actor, hands down, is the cheetah (of course they used more than one). The boy, Xan, is played by South African newcomer Alex Michaeletos. Michaeletos reads his lines like a school exercise, never finding a delivery that invests them with believability or emotional integrity. Xan's parents are played by experienced actors Campbell Scott and Hope Davis. Unfortunately, both actors hail from the New York/New Jersey area and struggle with their South African accents. They start out sounding much more Australian than South African until they settle down a bit. They also are saddled with characterizations that are written as one-dimensional saints. They are perfect parents in every possible respect and I found them rather boring.
The mystery man that Xan runs into on his travels is played by Eamonn Walker, another noted actor with plenty of drama under his belt. Walker affects a very strong tribal(?) accent that makes some of his line readings difficult to understand. And he tends to play some of his scenes as dramatics rather than drama. I occasionally felt that he was trying to compensate for Michaeletos' flat portrayal with a bit of overacting to pull a scene along.
Director Carroll Ballard uses a style that harkens back to the old Disney nature films of decades ago. Shots of wild animals in different settings are strung together to create improbable continuous pans of interspecies diversity, while animal closeups are edited together to make it seem as though they are relating and reacting to one another. Ballard certainly has an eye for sweeping African landscape shots and I particularly liked some footage of Xan and Duma looking down into a river gorge.
The best work is between Xan and Duma. The boy and cheetah interact closely on screen and they each seem completely comfortable with each other. If the filmmakers used any compositing tricks or matted-out tethers, there is no way to tell it. I got the feeling that the cheetahs were willing actors on the set.
From what I can tell in my research on the web, the movie takes a great many liberties with the story as told in the children's picture book written by the real Xan and his mother. That's fine with me, as the two media are different art forms and can exist independently. But if you are a fan of the book and take the family's account of their time with the cheetah as gospel, prepare yourself to get angry with changes by the screenwriters (starting with what they call the cheetah!). In an interesting casting note, the producers apparently had to cast the boy as older than he was during real events because they were afraid that too small a child might be seen as prey by their cheetah "actors".
It feels strange to add my usual parents' advisory to a movie made for the child market. There is no drug use or swearing and only minimal scuffling violence between some school children. Animal predation is shown in the wild and there is a shot of an eviscerated gazelle that could disturb very young viewers. Kids under the age of about 7 will probably find some of the "danger moments" too intense... For instance, there is a scene where Xan and Duma are threatened by very nasty looking crocodiles that has Ballard using underwater crocodile viewpoint shots reminiscent of Jaws. The movie also features an offscreen human death (not gruesome) that might disturb youngsters.
The DVD transfer is quite adequate and the sound is clear and crisp. Special features are limited to a few extended scenes and the theatrical trailer.
If you are looking for an alternative to silly comedies, superheroes, and cartoons for your kids, Duma will fit the bill. But don't expect to be drawn in as an adult. It's simply not deep or complex enough to merit much consideration.