Jean-Jacques Annaud finds what comes across as genuine emotion and complex thought processes in the beautiful faces of his lead stars--the numerous tigers, who combine as cubs and adults to portray Kumal and Sangha, their mother, father and circus companion. The special effects and animatronics that had to be used at times are well disguised. What is kept clearly in focus--without being at all anthropomorphic--is not just the outward form of these lovely animals, but also their hearts and souls.
The tale told is simple--at times perhaps too cliché, though Annaud is on record as stating his intent was to create the tone of a fable, in which the people are deliberately caricature-like but the tigers always full-blooded, full-bodied, infused with personality and feeling. That's what he's done, but it can prove annoying. The actors' broad mannerisms and stilted dialogue, used essentially just to carry the plot forward, inject a grating jerkiness into the smoothly intense and sensitive way the tale unspools through the tigers' eyes. But you could reason that's the way these animals see humans--awkward, misguided, unsure of what they feel, out of touch with truth.
Set in the early 20th century amid the jungles, ruined temples and colonial culture of Southeast Asia, the story follows a predictably unsettling path in which the tiger cubs lose a parent, are captured, pass "Black Beauty"-style through various hands--some well-meaning, some deliberately cruel--but eventually, through their own nature, regain the freedom they deserve. Even though you sort of know there will be a happy ending, Annaud manages to keep you on tenterhooks about the tigers' fate. Additionally, sorrow, born of our knowledge of how in reality their kin have been decimated by man down the years, underscores even the most charming and uplifting moments of this fictional tale.
It would take more than one viewing to work out exactly which tiger pulls off which scene, but they all do their job superbly--a credit to Annaud and their trainer, Thierry Le Portier. Guy Pearce, as the great white hunter who learns better, can't do much beyond going through the paces of the role, but he's allowed more dignity than the actors who play other hackneyed characters such as the obsequious colonial official, the greedy circus owner and the weak local potentate. Breaking through the triteness is Freddie Highmore as the young boy who tries to keep Sangha as a pet, his sweet, sad, earnest face managing to convey all the awe he feels for the magnificent tigers when he comes to understand their right to live free. Starring Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Freddie Highmore, Oanh Nguyen and Philippine LeRoy Beaulieu. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Written by Alain Godard and Jean-Jacques Annaud. Produced by Jake Eberts. A Universal release. Action/Drama. Rated PG for mild violence. Running time: 108 min