A family of tigers are driven from their home in the jungles of 1920s Asia, and the two cubs taken into captivity. Caught up in the intrigue surrounding a proposed newroad through the area, they are reunited years later — but as adversaries in a fight to the death.
The Bear — Jean-Jacques Annaud’s tale of an orphaned grizzly cub and the adult bear that adopts him — could well lay claim to being the king of wildlife cinema. The 1989 live-action movie has all the magic of the finest Disney animations — and none of the schmaltz or wisecracking creatures. In fact, Annaud was bold enough to strip away dialogue and human characters almost entirely, leaving behind a lean, meditative ode to nature.
His latest feature returns to similar territory — the setting this time being an unspecified region of French colonial Indochina — but falls short of recreating his ursine epic’s emotional punch. And this is one case where it’s impossible to pin the blame on the film’s stars. The tiger cubs who ‘play’ the titular siblings are adorable; so sweet and seemingly spontaneous as they tumble through the jungle that they fully deserve their top billing in the opening credits.
Their idyllic existence is suddenly torn apart when they’re discovered and separated by relic-hunters. The more headstrong of the two, Koumal, receives harsher treatment and his spirit breaks when he becomes the bloodthirsty centrepiece of a shoddy circus show. Meanwhile, Sangha becomes the pet of the local governor’s son, until an act of violence sees him falling into less compassionate hands. After a swift leap forward in time, the tigers are fully grown and forced into an arena to battle each other to the death.
As in The Bear, Annaud shoots many scenes from the animals’ perspective, investing them with human emotions and giving the film an appealing, cartoon-like feel. But here a set of crudely-sketched human characters are also brought to the foreground.
From the obsequious politician to the progressive-thinking, wide-eyed child, it all smacks of a half-hearted attempt to make the film appeal to a mainstream audience. Only Guy Pearce really sparks interest as a legendary but jaded hunter — and even he is left to hang around in the wings for much of the running time.
The film’s heart, however, can still be found in its visual sweep. Shimmering vistas (enhanced by a careful dab of CGI) act as a counterpoint to the story’s brutal twists, while a moonlit jungle scene, set to the sound of a scratchy old record, manages to perfectly capture a sense of place and time. It’s just a shame that the filmmakers didn’t place more faith in these wordless moments.
It’s undoubtedly good-natured, old-fashioned family entertainment, but Two Brothers never quite manages to strike a successful balance between fantasy and reality. Damn, though, those tiger cubs are cute.