The Great Tiger surveys his domain amidst the ancient human-built ruins of French Indochina. He hears the beckoning call of the Tigress nearby and the pair performs their courting ritual. Two cubs are soon born and the little family carries on an idyllic life – until man encroaches upon them, destroying their home and killing the father of “Two Brothers.”
Filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud is probably best known for his 1989 nature film, “The Bear,” about an orphaned bruin cub adopted by an adult male bear as they struggle to evade the human hunters. Annaud returns to the animal world with his latest tale about two tiger cubs, their separation from each other and their eventual and hopeful reunion.
Just as with Bart the Bear in the earlier work, the real stars of “Two Brothers” are wild animals. Kumal and Sangha are twin tiger cubs born to the Great Tiger and Tigress. Life is delightful for the frisky cubs as they play about the ancient ruins and attack their tolerant and doting mother and father. That is, until one day, they hear the approach of the only creature on earth that they fear – man.
Great white hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) has, by necessity, given up his ivory poaching ways in Africa for an even more lucrative endeavor. The world, in the beginning of the 20th century has grown tired of the trophies McRory and his kind have brought back from Africa. The new craze, the hunter soon learns, is not ivory or animal hides, but the mysterious treasures of Southeast Asia. Religious relics and statues from ancient times have become the rave in England and Europe and the ambitious hunter sees a big opportunity for great wealth and more fame.
McRory heads an expedition to the heart of colonial French Indochina to seek out the ancient treasures that have gained such popularity (and high price) in the west. The hunter and his posse of heavily armed natives are drawn to a massive site of antediluvian artifacts unseen for centuries. The site, though, is home to the tiger family and, when one of McRory’s men threatens little Kumal, the Great Tiger attacks, only to be shot and killed by the white hunter. Kumal is taken away by McRory, leaving the Tigress and Sangha behind. Aidan likes the feisty little cub but, before they can bond, Kumal is taken away and sold to a sleazy and cruel circus owner, Saladin (Moussa Maaskri)
Local colonial commissioner Eugene Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) coerces the white hunter to act as a guide on a tiger hunt for a local prince (Oanh Nygeun). McRory leads them to where the Tigress and her remaining cub are hiding and mom does her best to protect her baby and lead the hunters away. She is shot by the prince and, as he poses over the tiger’s body for a photo of his prize, the Tigress leaps up and runs away, only wounded through the ear. Little Sangha is found by the commissioner’s son, Raoul (Freddie Highmore), and the boy takes the cub as his pet. But, things turn bad for Sangha when he defends himself from the family’s dog and, because he has “a taste for blood,” is sent to become a subject in the prince’s royal zoo. Sangha is to be trained to be a killer.
A year passes and the brothers have grown up under very different circumstances. Kumal, the more aggressive one as a cub, has been beaten and abused by Saladin, to the sorrow of the circus animal trainer Zerbino (Vincent Scarito), is resigned to his fate of performing tricks and jumping through hoops of fire. Sangha has been groomed to fight fiercely by the head of the royal menagerie and the Prince decrees that a celebration will be capped by a battle between Sangha and another tiger – Kumal. When the day of the death struggle arrives, McRory is there and shocked to see his friend, Kumal, about to be torn apart by the more powerful Sangha. But, blood is thicker than water and the two brothers recognize each other in the arena. McRory aids in their escape.
“Two Brothers” a rousing nature adventure that brings the animal world into the hearts and minds of the viewer. Helmer Annaud makes no bones about how he feels about Mother Nature and uses his story about his titular characters to make a statement about respect for the environment and the creatures therein. The choice of one of the world’s most majestic, powerful beasts as the focus of the film makes the message more poignant. The end credits state that, at the time the story takes place, there were over 100,000 tigers in Southeast Asia. That number is now less than 5000. By showing the proud creatures as doting parents, playful cubs and long-separated brothers, Annaud tempers the fearsome nature of the big cats. The cubs act just like playful not-so-little kittens as they climb all over their dad, annoying him, but in a tolerant, fatherly way.
Don’t expect the human players to measure up to the charm of the tigers. Guy Pearce, as the great white hunter Aidan McRory, reps the star power that will give the viewers a familiar hook as an enticement to pay out to see “Two Brothers.” Young Freddie Highmore is the other key human as the boy who befriends Sangha. The rest of the people characters are little more than stick figures representing the two sides of human nature – good guys and bad guys – without much shading.
Annaud does not attempt to anthropomorphize his feline actors by giving them voice or any sense of right or wrong. Instead, he shows the life and survival of the tiny family of tigers, putting a natural spin on their personalities. When Kumal is taken away from his home he pines away in captivity until the main attraction in the circus, Bloody Caesar the Man-eating Tiger, offers a bit of comfort to the lonely and scared little critter. One thing the filmmaker avoids is showing the hunter spirit of the great tigers – there is no display of the stalk and the strike one would expect from these predators.
Techs are beautifully handled all around. Helmer Annaud, with animal trainer Monique Angeon, elicits believable performances from the non-human actors through the prestidigitation of film. This is a true fantasy tale with man and animal bonding as friends. (Parents: it is not advised that you permit your child to kiss a full grown tiger, as happens here. Remember that this is a fairytale.)
The film’s affiliation with the World Wildlife Fund, the fine craftsmanship and enjoyable feline characters may help “Two Brothers” open more people’s eyes to saving the environment. The simple fact that less than 5000 of these magnificent creatures remain should awaken the conscience of those in the target audience still unaware. Sure “Two Brothers” wears its conservationist heart on its sleeve but that is not such a bad thing for enlightening family entertainment. I give it a B.
Big game hunter, author and plunderer of Asian antiquities Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce, "The Time Machine") shoots a tiger to save one of his men, he discovers a cub cowering beneath its father's body. McRory becomes fond of the little cat, but he is separated from it when the village chief (Jaran Phetjareon) who has accepted cash to turn a blind eye to his statue theft double deals and turns him in. Aidan will rediscover Kumal caged as the man-eater of Zerbino's (Vincent Scarito) circus, but it is not until much later that he discovers the parallel story of a young French boy, Raoul (Freddie Highmore, the upcoming "J.M. Barrie's Neverland") who loved another baby cub. Unbeknownst to McRory, he had split up "Two Brothers."Director Jean-Jacques Annaud returns to the nature drama of 1988's "The Bear" with this conservation-minded family tale. Parents should be warned that he exercises serious misjudgment in showing a small child approach and kiss a grown tiger, but, except for this one severe lapse, Annaud's message is pure.
The baby tigers are conceived in a temple ruin in the jungles of Cambodia and begin their lives in the sacred natural splendor of the place. Kumal is the more inquisitively aggressive of the two while Sangha hangs back. It is this difference in their nature that causes them to be separated as colonial looters approach their home - mother grabs the weaker Sangha while Kumal stays with dad.
Mother tries to rescue Kumal, but villagers chase her off with fire and the chief receives more money selling the cub to the circus. While Zerbino is patient with the baby tiger, his performer Saladin (Moussa Maaskri) uses more brutal tactics to break Kumal and get him to perform tricks. Meanwhile, regional governor Eugène Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, "The Lady and the Duke") frees McRory from prison to use the hunter for his own ends. Normandin is toadying to His Excellency (Oanh Nguyen, "Clockstoppers") in order to build a road to bring tourism to the temples and so arranges a big game hunt where McRory will ensure that the royal bags a tiger. That tiger is Kumal and Sangha's mother, but while she escapes with a bullet hole through the ear, Sangha is left behind and discovered by Normandin's son Raoul. Sangha becomes a beloved pet until he attacks Mrs. Normandin's (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, "Vatel") yippy dog. The Normandins tell Raoul that Sangha is being turned free, but he is really sent to the Asian royal where he is trained to be a fighter. More cash is changed hands when His Excellency wishes to put on a tiger fight for the entertainment of his fiancee Paulette (Stéphanie Lagarde) and the two brothers are pitted against one another. They are recognized by both McRory and Raoul and, to both of their delight, the animals recognize one another and engage in play before escaping and making headlines with their local mischief. As the animals are unafraid of humans, they are feared as man-eaters and McRory is engaged to hunt and destroy them.
Jean-Jacques Annaud and his writing partner Alain Godard ("Enemy at the Gates," "The Name of the Rose") have created a dual fable reminiscent of the tales of Kipling. This turn of the century story balances man's ability to destroy for financial gain against his better instincts to preserve our natural and historical riches. This conflict plays out within Aidan McRory, who is further influenced by Naï-Rea (Maï Anh Le), the local woman he falls in love with. She is the daughter of the village chief and the two generations stand for the opposing themes, just as the compassionate animal trainer Zerbino is paired with the cruel Saladin. Colonialism is clearly charged for the exploitation of less developed lands.
But "Two Brothers" is really about the tigers and Annaud and his cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou ("Man on the Train") masterfully capture these animals in play and in close proximity with humans. The Two cubs, with big white marks on the backs of their ears that look like spotlights, humorously interact with other animals, behaving just like kids. Kumal has a fondness for the honey drops McRory keeps in a tin. Sangha hides out with Raoul's stuffed animals just like "ET." When the animals are ripped away from their home, then mistreated as adults, Annaud gets you in the gut. Early comical interludes return when the adult tigers reunite and begin to do things like raid the Mekong meat and poultry truck or jump into an unattended bubble bath. The final confrontation between the tigers and McRory is suspenseful and ironic, although once again, the filmmaker should have shown more responsibility in depicting Raoul's interaction with his former pet.
"Two Brothers" was filmed in France, Thailand and Cambodia, but while majestic surroundings are captured, a technical issue with the picture transfer causes noticeable blurring in several places. The cast all play their characters with the broad strokes that created them, with Pearce achieving somewhat more complexity as a result of his story arc.
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