Dir: Jean-Jacques Annaud. Fr-UK 2004. 109mins
Along with Roman Polanski and Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Annaud is one of the few France-based directors who can shoot an international production in English that will be screened worldwide.
Sixteen years ago his film The Bear, about the life and adventures of its titular hero in the Caucasian mountains, proved a family hit in France, where it was seen by more than nine million people. It also registered strong box office elsewhere, including $30m-plus in North America.
Annaud returns to the genre with the $60m-budget Two Brothers, in which his ursine protagonist is replaced by a pair of felines. While it may not be the equal to his earlier work, it is still a strong piece of popular entertainment whose touches of tender humour and absence of violence offer a more interesting and challenging real-life vision of the animal kingdom than the likes of the Free Willy franchise.
In France opening admissions have been strong ($7.3m or 1.08m admissions), thanks to its 739-screen Easter rollout. Often it was the only film playing in French ski and holiday resorts, although it has not generated as much buzz as the equally family friendly Les Choristes.
Overseas, where it will be marketed more as a children's film, it should provide younger audiences with a neat alternative to the summer blockbuster season. Parents may be less enthusiastic about the dearth of rounded human characters, although the presence of Guy Pearce as the lead human may help, even more in territories familiar with his TV work such as the UK and Australia. Asian markets might not appreciate the presentation of colonial 1920s south-eastern Asia.
In 1920s Cambodia, two tiger cubs Sangha and Kumal are stumbled upon by a game hunter-cum-archaeologist Aidan McRory (Pearce). Sangha ends up in a royal menagerie and is raised to become a fighter; Kumal is sold to a circus and becomes an object of entertainment. Eventually they are pitted against each other in an arena where they are meant to fight to the death.
Unlike many French blockbuster film-makers - such as Jan Kounen and his recent Blueberry, another big budget English-language film - Annaud does not feel the need to demonstrate his abilities in every shot. Instead he offers straightforward and elegant direction which is as clear and simple as the story itself.
On posters the tigers seem indistinguishable: on film the audience never run the risk of mixing up Sangha and Kumal, even when they are in the same shot. Like actors, each has a distinct personality shown, to Annaud's credit, in how they roar, pad about or even convey expression through their eyes.
Other scenes convey echoes of Hollywood without ever descending into pastiche, as for example when a tiger cub hides among a pile of toys (see Steven Spielberg's ET: The Extra-Terrestrial).
Rightly, the tiger's names appear above the opening credits, reflecting how Annaud over-humanises them to make his show and compensate for the slightness of the human characters.
Sangha and Kumal only hurt bad guys, are never seen to eat other animals and only kill off-screen. It is in sharp comparison with the star of The Bear who, although at times acting like a big teddy, Annaud tooks pains to portray as a powerful carnivorous killer.
Herman Melville in Moby Dick and Ernest Hemingway with The Old Man And The Sea taught us that a good animal yarn works even better if it contains a good human alter ego.
But, in contrast with the creatures, Annaud's humans are pale-archetypes: the adventurer dandy (Pearce), the fat colonist (Dreyfus), the lonely wife (Leroy-Beaulieu) and the shy, beautiful south-east Asian girl (Mai Anh Le).
Guy Pearce, as the hunter, seems too transparent and almost feels as if he does not belong to the film. It's not his fault: his character is too under-written for him to express himself through and he only seems to exists thanks to his uniform of short beard and colonial outfit, with no back story to fall back on.
The rest of the cast are passable, although their characters suffer from the same absence of script development and depth. Dreyfus as always is a pleasure to watch thanks to the comic physical contortions of his face.
Prod cos: Pathe Renn Prod, Two Brothers Production Ltd, TF1
Fr dist : Pathe
Int'l sales : Pathe Int'l
Prods: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jake Eberts, Xavier Castano
Scr: Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cine: Jean Marie Drejou
Prod des : Pierre Queffelean
Ed : Noelle Boisson
Mus: Stephen Warbeck
Main cast : Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu