- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud has the uncanny ability of turning reality into a cartoon. I mean that in a good way.

“Two Brothers” is no mere nature show. It’s a sentimental fable about two tiger cubs separated by human caprice. Mr. Annaud manipulates the movements, expressions, growls and ululations of real live animals and folds them tidily into a story arc.

He’s like that Aussie hero from the ‘80s, Crocodile Dundee. He has a way with beasts that makes you think less of humans.

The cub brothers here, who come to be known as Kumal and Sangha, are all cute and anthropomorphized; they show fear, longing, hesitation and torpor. You know it’s a smoke-and-mirrors show, but Mr. Annaud earns your belief.

The setting is French Indochina around the turn of the last century. Guy Pearce plays roguish fortune hunter and pulp novelist Aidan McRory, who roams the jungle in search of elephant ivory, prized animal skins and Buddhist antiquities.

Among villagers, McRory has the reputation of Saul Bellow’s Henderson — the white man who can protect them from tigers. After killing one and taking in one of its cubs, however, he begins doubting his profession.

Soon after feeling the moral tug of proto-conservationism, McRory becomes caught in a web of intrigue involving colonial Administrator Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who’s trying to curry favor with the Westernized chieftain of the region (Oanh Nguyen), a soft, fat, incompetent scion living in the shadow of a legendarily brave father.

The scheme is to build a road suitable for European tourists through modern-day Cambodia and Thailand, a moneymaker the administrator and his wife hope will land them a plum diplomatic post back in Europe.

Arrested for trying to smuggle ancient statues, McRory loses his cub to an inept circus outfit, while the brother, temporarily the pet of Normandin’s son Raoul (Freddie Highmore, a dead ringer for “E.T.” star Henry Thomas), eventually is offered to the tribal leader for use in coliseum blood sports.

Mr. Annaud, to his credit, does not pound too hard on the theme of wildlife protection. In a conversation with a native woman, McRory notices the villagers’ double standard: Hunting for statues is a no-no, he says. But tigers? “You don’t mind hunting them.”

The director does, however, sugarcoat the predatory ferocity of tigers. Here, they can be talked to and reasoned with; they have long sense memories and familial ties that even animal lovers will admit are bogus.

But “Two Brothers” is a fable, after all. The cubs’ reunion is a sort of anthropomorphic substitute for what Mr. Annaud really wants to say: Leave them alone.

On the downside, the movie is about 15 minutes too long; if adults squirm, children probably will, too. Parents should know, as well, that the rifle shots and booby traps and circus abuse — the whole inventory of human cruelty — will not sit well with very young children.

“Two Brothers” has a happy ending, but Mr. Annaud dances around images from which animated movies would flinch.

**1/2

TITLE: “Two Brothers”

RATING: PG (Depictions of violence toward animals)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Produced by Mr. Annaud and Jake Eberts. Written by Mr. Annaud and Alain Godard. Cinematography by Jean-Marie Dreujou. Music by Stephen Warbeck.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.twobrothersmovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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