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They earned their stripes

The grace and beauty of the tigers overwhelm everything else, including the actors, in Jean-Jacques Annaud's 'Two Brothers.'

June 25, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Tigers burn brightly in "Two Brothers." Their names are alone above the title, they have all the good scenes, they are a wonder to behold. There is a price that must be paid to experience their grandeur, but if you are a tiger fan, or think you might be, it will be worth it.

"Two Brothers" was directed by France's Jean-Jacques Annaud, likely the only filmmaker who could have done it, and if you're familiar with his previous work you can accurately guess this venture's strengths and weaknesses.

Annaud's English-language films, including "The Lover," "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Enemy at the Gates," share a fondness for clumsy dialogue. Though "Two Brothers" is nominally a family film, that doesn't excuse the frustrating awkwardness of its dramaturgy, nor does Annaud's claim that the two-dimensionality is intentional, the better to present a contrast to the complexity of the tigers' emotions.

But when, as in "Quest for Fire," Annaud's characters don't use a known language, or better still, when the characters are animals who don't speak at all, the director's work markedly improves. His "The Bear," starring the redoubtable Bart, was a landmark in putting realistic animal behavior on screen, in letting bears be bears. And when "Two Brothers" allows tigers to be tigers, it has our full and grateful attention.

Though the names above the title are Kumal and Sangha, "Two Brothers" employed some 30 tigers, with the greatest number being cubs from 7 to 12 weeks old. Trainer Thierry Le Portier, who handled the tigers in "Gladiator" and the puma in "The Bear," does a wizardly job with the tigers here, both in anticipating what they'll do and manipulating their natural behavior into the actions the director wants.

Not that mechanical aids didn't help at times. A minimal amount of shots (for instance a tiger carrying a cub in its mouth) used animatronics; cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou decided to shoot the animals in high-definition digital so he could go 50 minutes without reloading and have a better chance of capturing behavior; and scenes including both tigers and humans were shot twice, with motion-control technology ensuring they could be flawlessly combined in postproduction.

"Two Brothers" also makes use of the venerable ideas of Russian director Lev Kuleshov, who was the first to demonstrate that shots of faces, whether human or animal, are given different emotional contexts by audiences depending on the nature of the scenes they are cut into.

All this planning and technology are employed so seamlessly, however, that all you're aware of in watching "Two Brothers" are the great beauty and grace of these remarkable animals, who captivate us whether they're large or small, playful or fierce. When poet and visionary William Blake wrote of tigers, "what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry," it's almost as if he imagined these shots.

Oh yes, the story. That. Written by Alain Godard and Annaud, it starts with the parents of the two brothers gamboling through some of the legendary temples of Angkor Wat (the film was shot largely in Cambodia). We catch up with the resulting twins as young cubs, with Kumal being the more intrepid while Sangha is timid.

Meanwhile, back in London, author and great white hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) is noting with interest the major prices Asian artifacts are fetching at auction. Soon enough he is in the jungle, planning, not to put too fine a point on it, to loot local temples of salable statues. Still, he is enough of an aesthete to play recorded excerpts from Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" to help wile away the hot and lonely nights.

The magnetic Pearce, gaunt enough to be a malaria survivor, certainly looks the part of an old tropical hand, and his lean performance is the only human acting worth noting. Involving even here, he seems to be in another, more interesting film that the other actors have been denied access to.

Partly as a result of McRory, the cubs are separated from their parents as well as each other. Kumal is sold to a fleabag circus with a sadistic owner while Sangha ends up with the small son of a regional French administrator who is eager to curry favor with the local prince. The two animals may think they've seen the last of each other, but we know better.

The comic opera silliness of much of the human action blends badly with the more serious jeopardy the tigers are often in and also clashes with the film's attempts to convey a serious message about the necessity of animal conservation.

Only the tigers, beautiful and dangerous, maintain their integrity. By staying true to themselves, they make nothing else matter.


'Two Brothers'

MPAA rating: PG for mild violence

Times guidelines: Tigers shot at, one is killed.

Kumal and Sangha...The tigers

Guy Pearce...Aidan McRory

Jean-Claude Dreyfus...Administrator


Freddie Highmore...Young Raoul

Oanh Nguyen...His Excellency

Vincent Scarito...Zerbino

Moussa Maaskri...Saladin

Universal Pictures and Pathe presentation of a Pathe Renn production with TF1 Films, released by Universal Pictures. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Writers Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on a story by Annaud. English dialogue Julian Fellowes. Producer Jake Eberts, Jean-Jacques Annaud. Director of photography Jean-Marie Dreujou. Production designer Pierre Queffelean. Tiger trainer Thierry Le Portier. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

In general release.

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