The animals outact the humans by a considerable margin in “Two Brothers,” but since more attention is given to them over the course of its 105 minutes, the picture gets by as solid, old-fashioned family entertainment. The story of two tiger cubs separated by human intrusion and reunited in unusual circumstances isn’t a significant improvement over Disney live-action movies from the 1950s, but it’s up to their standards, and they’ve held up pretty well.
The script by Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on a story by director Annaud, is fairly simple. Two cubs, later named Kumal and Sangha, are born to a pair of tigers in early twentieth-century French Indochina, and for a time they frolic about in the gorgeous forest, exhibiting very different characteristics in the process: though Annaud avoids the sort of cutesy anthropomorphizing some directors would elect, Kumal is timid and klutzy, and Sangha courageous and defiant. Their idyllic existence is shattered with the arrival of Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce), a taciturn British hunter and writer who’s abandoned his African haunts for East Asian ones; since elephant tusks are no longer selling in England, he’s set his eyes on currently-fashionable ancient sculptures from Buddhist temples instead. In an accidental encounter with the tiger family, he kills the cubs’ father and captures Kumal, but during a legal wrangle the cub is sold to a local circus run by villains Saladin (Moussa Masskri) and Zerbino (Vincent Scarito), while McRory himself is forced into the employ of the local French administrator, Eugene Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who uses his guest’s fame and abilities to insure the success of a tiger hunt staged for the local potentate (Oanh Nguyen) whose approval he needs for a road project he hopes will earn him points back home. During the expedition, Normandin’s son Raoul (Freddie Highmore) finds Sangha and makes him a pet, but after a few episodes of accidental destruction mother Mathilde (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) insists that the cub be sent away, and Sangha becomes a part of the potentate’s menagerie. A year after these events, Kumal and Sangha meet again at a festival staged by the prince, in a cage where they’re meant to fight one another.
So long as Annaud, whose 1989 feature “The Bear” exhibited his expert treatment of animals on film, keeps the focus of “Two Brothers” on Kumal and Sangha, the tigers’ beauty and energy, lovingly captured in Jean-Marie Dreujou’s widescreen photography, are irresistible, even in scenes that seem cloned from earlier movies. (The moment when one of the cubs is attracted by a persistent butterfly is one, and the damage caused by Sangha at a dinner party is another. There’s even a moment, when Sangha sits among a shelf of stuffed animals during a game of hide-and-seek with Raoul, that’s directly lifted from “E.T.”) But the picture drags when the humans take center-stage, sagging especially during the third quarter, though it revives when the critters steal the spotlight for a big finale. The actors’ plight is certainly due largely to the script, which doesn’t give them much beyond cliche to deal with, but they don’t transcend the flaws. Pearce is wooden, while Dreyfus balances the equation with an incredibly busy, mannered turn that makes him look like Peter Ustinov on a high. Among the supporting performers Maaskri and Scarito do moustache-twirling bits, and Nguyen is an effete, decadent caricature. Highmore is a pleasant tyke, though.
A picture like this one has to have lessons, of course, and in “Two Brothers” it’s McRory who learns them–by the end he’s sworn never to lift a rifle against an animal again, and he’s come to realize that ancient ruins should stay where they are, not be carted off to Europe. (There’s also an IMAX-style insert at the close informing us how few tigers remain in the wild.) All of that is very nice, of course, but it’s not the didacticism that makes the movie worth watching. It’s simply the magnificent scenery and the closely-observed behavior of the animals within it.
Given the very personable character of the tigers, both young and old, in the picture, viewers may be surprised to know that multiple animals were used for each role. They may also be amazed to learn that the luscious images were originally shot on high definition video and blown up to 35mm. While “Two Brothers” may hearken back to a much simpler time in content, technically it’s on the cutting edge.