"Duma": A true-life tale of a boy and his cheetah

In a gross miscarriage of movie justice, Warner Bros. put Carroll Ballard's exceptional family film "Duma" in distribution limbo, aborting its wide theatrical release after capriciously deciding it wasn't commercial enough.

This says more about the cowardice of Hollywood studios than the wonderful quality of "Duma," which has been rescued from local obscurity by Northwest Film Forum's adventurous "Cinema K" programming for children. Warner Bros. is at least allowing interested parties to book it independently.

How Warner Bros. could neglect a new film by the director of "The Black Stallion," "Never Cry Wolf" and "Fly Away Home" is beyond comprehension. If nothing else, Ballard's track record would make "Duma" a safe bet for at least limited release, and a long life on DVD is virtually guaranteed.

Set in the harsh, beautifully photographed wilderness of South Africa, much of the film involves the recklessly boyish efforts of 12-year-old Xan (played by newcomer Alex Michaletos) to return his pet cheetah, Duma, to the wild.

Found as a cub, the now full-grown Duma is at risk in big-city Johannesburg. So without telling his mother (Hope Davis), Xan treks into the dangerous Kalahari Desert, following the advice of his farmer father (Campbell Scott) to return Duma to his instinctive place in nature. Xan is joined on his journey by Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker, the volatile dictator in "Lord of War"), an enigmatic wanderer on a mission of his own.

As always, Ballard is singularly fascinated by the mysterious bond between humans and animals, and his supreme patience yields hypnotic images that no other director would think to include.

"Duma" bears partial resemblance to 2004's tiger-cub adventure "Two Brothers," but this elemental true-life tale of a boy and his cheetah (based on the book "How It Was With Dooms," by Xan Hopcraft and his mother, Carol Cawthra Hopcraft) has far more riches to offer in its wise embrace of natural wonders.

With ravenous alligators and lions on the prowl, "Duma" delivers familiar adventure, but Ballard refuses to cater to cuteness. This lack of artifice — the very quality that makes "Duma" unique — is probably what caused Warner Bros. to make its decision. Perhaps they'd have preferred a computer-animated "Duma" with lucrative plush-toy licensing.

Thankfully, Ballard made a film of longer-lasting value.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Duma," with Alex Michaletos, Eamonn Walker, Hope Davis, Campbell Scott. Directed by Carroll Ballard, from a screenplay by Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, based on the book "How It Was With Dooms" by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and Xan Hopcraft. 100 minutes. Rated PG for mild adventure peril. Northwest Film Forum.