Video Picks & Passes

Duma: PICK


Shiloh: PICK


Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season: PICK


Content advisory:

Duma: Some tense and menacing sequences and animal gore. Shiloh, Shiloh 2: Some menacing situations and restrained depiction of abuse of animals; heavy drinking on the part of an abusive supporting character. All three films are fine family viewing but could be disturbing to sensitive children.

“Never work with children or animals,” Ed Sullivan warned, but some of the best live-action family films of the last decade or so defy that advice: Shiloh, Fly Away Home, My Dog Skip, Two Brothers, Because of Winn-Dixie, Duma. Alas, as good as these films are, few have ever found much of an audience. Perhaps Ed was right after all. Director Carroll Ballard should know: His latest, Duma (new this week on DVD), arguably the best live-action family film of 2005, joins his earlier children-and-animals films Fly Away Home and The Black Stallion on the roster of the best family films few families have even heard of, let alone seen.

It deserves better. A road movie of sorts about a white South African boy and his pet cheetah, Duma is a morally serious coming-of-age story both for young Xan (Alex Michaeletos) and for his unusual pet Duma. When tragedy forces Xan and his mother to relocate from the family farm to the city, Duma must be returned to the wild. Along the way Xan and Duma fall in with a drifter named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker), a companion who could easily have become that cliché, the “magic black man” who exists to support the white hero’s journey. But Ballard’s sure hand steers the film clear of nearly every pitfall.

In other news about children-and-animals family films, this week’s limited theatrical release of Saving Shiloh completes the film trilogy about a boy and his dog begun by Shiloh and Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season, available on DVD. Based on the award-winning trilogy of children’s novels by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, the Shiloh films tell the story of West Virginia boy Marty Preston, whose attachment to an abused beagle he calls Shiloh draws him into conflict with the dog’s hard-drinking, mean-spirited original owner, Judd Travers (Scott Wilson in an uncannily nuanced performance).

At first, Marty’s flinty father Ray (Michael Moriarty), though not unsympathetic to Marty’s concerns, insists on honoring Judd’s property rights over the dog. Meanwhile Marty struggles to balance conflicting rights and responsibilities and chart an ethical course. Marty proves brave, shrewd, and willing to sacrifice for what he wants, winning the respect of his father and even for a fleeting moment of Judd himself. Unfortunately, a single serious misstep all but derails Shiloh’s climactic scene.

Throughout the film Marty’s father Ray is portrayed in a somewhat ambivalent light, authoritarian but not cruel, but in the climax the filmmakers allow him to be shockingly weak in failing to support Marty as he deserves (in order, one assumes, to heighten the drama of Marty’s conflict with Judd). Though serious, this miscalculation doesn’t negate the value of the film as a whole — and is substantially mitigated in the sequel, Shiloh 2, in which Ray proves much more willing to stand up for his family and put his childhood friend Judd in his place. Judd, though, needs more than putting in his place. His drinking and his bitterness increase, and he seems headed either for tragedy or for jail.

The film has a more inspirational destination in mind. While slower and more didactic than the original Shiloh, Shiloh 2 makes a fine, uplifting companion piece. Here’s a pair of unconventionally gentle, wholesome family films.