My review of Two Brothers was originally published at Christianity Today.
There are at least ten good reasons to go see Two Brothers, especially if you take children along for the ride. It’s a delightful success thanks to …
1. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud. The director’s “grownups-only” films have been hit-and-miss affairs (The Name of the Rose, The Lover, Enemy at the Gates, Seven Years in Tibet), but his “all-ages” films are delightful, unusual, and exemplary. In 1988, he gave us The Bear, one of the most awe-inspiring animal stories ever filmed. With Two Brothers, he’s in his element, filming the natural world and considering a clash of cultures. Annaud turns down the typical sentimentality characteristic of Disney films; he makes the beasts seem real, and the threat of humankind’s encroachment on their territory is portrayed with enough realism to make even the grownups in the audience flinch. Even though he avoids the uncomfortable fact of a tiger’s predatory nature and keeps the camera clear of carnage, he gives us a powerful vision of the majesty and strength of these animals. They’re not anthropomorphized stuffed toys.
2. Tigers! Annaud employed nearly 30 Bengalese tigers to give his striped characters just the right expressions and abilities at just the right time—from climbing trees to chasing down trucks to jumping through fiery hoops. While it’s a bit ironic that a film emphasizing the tragedy of tigers in captivity features, yes, tigers trained to act in captivity, Annaud’s respect and care for these animals is obvious in his storytelling. He even gives one of the human characters a speech asserting that people can be taught to respect animals in the wilderness through the employment of those animals already in captivity. (And on a personal note, these tiger cubs are much more likeable and interesting than that otherorange cat—the lazy, fat, talking one—currently wasting viewers’ time on the big screen.)
3. Skillful storytelling. The Two Brothers of the title are sibling tigers Kumal, the bold and adventurous one, and Sangha, the timid one. During their childhood of playful antics in the Southeast Asian jungles, they’re separated from their parents by a hunting expedition, led by treasure hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce of Memento and L.A. Confidential). McRory’s after ancient statues from the Buddhist temples, but he gets more than he bargained for when the temple proves inhabited. Thus, Kumal and Sangha learn the capabilities of human beings and their guns, and they are captured and separated by the hunting party.
Kumal is sold to a circus, where he is mistreated and forced to become the stunt tiger for a mean-spirited trainer named Zerbino (Vincent Scarito) and a ringmaster named Saladin (Moussa Maaskri) in a low-budget Siegfried and Roy act.
Meanwhile, Sangha is adopted by Raoul (Freddie Highmore), the young son of a regional governor, French colonialist Eugene Normandin (Delicatessan’s Jean-Claude Dreyfus). Sangha proves to be a difficult pet, and is eventually turned over to the heartless local prince (Oanh Nguyen), where he is trained to be a killer for show.
Alongside the story of the tigers, Annaud weaves other stories that will interest grownups more than children. McRory wanders from jungles to prisons, from British auctions of ancient artifacts to traveling on the backs of elephants for treasure hunting expeditions. McRory’s not just a fortune hunter; he’s also a writer of adventure novels about hunters confronting powerful beasts. Raoul’s mother Mathilde (Phillipine Leroy-Beaulieu) is a big fan of the novels, and the adults in the audience get a good chuckle out of watching her read one of them to the boy at night. After he’s fallen asleep, she continues reading, clearly “affected” by McRory’s masculine prose. But the real romance occurs only in subtle, flirtatious interaction between McRory and an Asian beauty named Nai-Rea (Mai Anh Le).
Annaud’s plot suggests deeper explorations of innocence lost, cultures at war, the effects our actions have on our environment, and more. Best of all, it’s that rare kind of comedy—simple humor that is more observed than contrived, based on the personalities, behaviors, and folly of animals and humans alike, rather than forced through crass punchlines or annoying sidekicks.
4. The cast. Guy Pearce, right at home in Eddie Bauer wilderness khakis, exudes intelligence, confidence and sensitivity in yet another fine performance. (Apparently he took the part because he loves cats.) He’s at his best when he bonds with young Raoul, counseling him—and all of the children in the audience—that it’s a bad idea to raise a tiger cub as a pet. The supporting cast is well-chosen, especially Jean Claude-Dreyfuss, who makes the French colonialist naïve and self-absorbed without making him revolting, and Mai Anh Le, who brings grace, subtlety, and beauty to her scenes with Pearce.
5. Nature. Two Brothers gives us a 109-minute vacation in the jungles of Cambodia and Thailand. He may not film the natural world with the poetry and awe-inspiring vision of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), but he knows better than to distract us from it with gratuitous effects. He knows the sunny glory of tigers, and he fills the screen with stripes, claws, fangs, and those mysterious golden eyes.
6. History. Two Brothers offers us an unusual window on rarely filmed corners of the world, recreating an interesting piece of history in which cultures mixed with nervous tension.
7. The themes. The importance of family relationships—brother to brother, father to son—are given plenty of proper attention in the stories of the cubs, young Raoul, and the Asian prince. McRory also learns a deeper respect for the histories and environments of other cultures, especially when those quiet reprimands come from the gorgeous Nai-Rea.
While these messages are clear, and although there is an afterword that impresses upon us just how rare (and indeed—endangered) these magisterial creatures have become, none of this is shoved down our throats. Annaud prods us to think about wildlife conservation and the plight of the environment, but he does so without sermonizing. He impresses upon us the value of the natural world by capturing its beauty and energy with the vivid cinematography of Jean Marie Dreujou (Man on the Train), who was bold enough to take on the great outdoors with new digital cameras. No annoying voiceovers, no animals breaking into maddening songs.
8. Responsible all-ages entertainment. You won’t find a better all-ages show in the theatres. Please note that children and adults alike will find some chapters discomforting as the animal characters suffer mistreatment (without the actual animals themselves being harmed.) This is not a sanitized, sweet nothing of a movie. Rather than putting lessons in the mouths of talking animals, it shows us its lessons through pictures that are sometimes difficult to watch. In that, it’s far more effective, more compelling, and more honest than the critter-character cartoons that kids are used to seeing.
9. What it doesn’t have. There isn’t an assault of Two Brothers merchandising that your kids will want to run out and buy. There’s no video game. The film’s special effects are simple and undistracting, letting us focus on God’s own special effects. The flow of the story is never interrupted by annoying singalongs. None of the characters have wisecracking sidekicks that make you wish you had a rifle. Best of all, Annaud does not feel the need to stuff the film with pop culture references or sexual references “to please the adults,” but instead ensures that the story is well-told. After all, a story that is “just for kids” isn’t a good enough story; the best children’s stories remain rewarding for their parents as well.