Two Brothers

(2004) ** 1/2 Pg
109 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud. Cast: Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, Freddie Highmore, Oanh Nguyen.

With Two Brothers, Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear) ignores the old chestnut about never working with children or animals. The two brothers in question are Koumal and Sangha, two tigers who we see grow from infancy to imposing adult size in 1920s (French colonial) Indochina. Threatened by hunters who, not unreasonably, see the tigers as natural enemies, the tigers also gratefully befriend a boy, the better to endear a family audience to this rather rare nature drama.

For all intents and purposes, Two Brothers introduces earnest child star Freddie Highmore to American audiences, in the role of the French Christopher Robin-type named Raoul (Highmore will resurface soon in Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opposite Johnny Depp in both films). Raoul is the son of fat-cat administrator Eugène Normandin (French star Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a bureaucrat hoping to use famous English hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) for his own opportunistic devices.

Narrowly escaping death, the tigers face parallel lives in captivity, one in a circus and one in the Normandin home. Eventually, the tigers become unwieldy and potentially dangerous, meaning they must be released into the wild and, if the bureaucrat has anything to say about the matter, shot to protect the surrounding settlements and save political face. Annaud and co-scenarist Alain Godard fail to convincingly transform Pearce's big game hunter into a modernistic sensitive man, but aside from this significant exception, the story is effective and flows pleasingly from no-dialogue tiger scenes to scenes of human folly.

Annaud and Godard devise a curious, diverting adventure which gets significant mileage from its exotic settings (locations in Cambodia and Thailand), the novelty of the animal performers, the crack work of the human performers, and compelling messages about the desecration of sacred statues and the endangerment of unique species (fewer than 5,000 tigers remain in the wild). The handling of the latter issue may be naive, but Annaud gives the World Wildlife Fund a plug for those who'd like to take their warm fuzzies into real-world action.

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