When it comes to live-action animal dramas, no one does them quite like Jean-Jacques Annaud, the prolific French director, whose 1988 film The Bear poignantly portrayed the grim reality of life in the wild. This time, instead of focusing on a newborn cub abandoned in the Canadian Artic, Annaud turns his camera on two little tigers, who suffer a similar fate in the adorably engaging, Two Brothers.
Set in French Indochina in the 1920s, Two Brothers follows real-life tigers Koumal and Sangha as they journey from the lush jungles of Southeast Asia -- where they live among the ancient temples of Ankor -- to Siem Reap, a provincial town located along the riverbanks leading to the ruins of the Khmer Empire. Once in captivity, the brothers are separated following the death of their father, a fierce predator shot by British adventurer Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce). A year later they are reunited when the emperor (Oanh Nguyen) and a shifty circus trainer (Vincent Scarito) pit them against one another in a barbaric catfight.
Luckily, the tigers escape unharmed, recognizing each other before unleashing their claws in a fury of protective rage. But when they flee the ring bound for the outlying jungle, Monsieur Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the haughty colonial administrator whose son (Freddie Highmore) once called Sangha his pet, orders McRory to kill the two tigers before they attack an innocent villager.
Shot in Cambodia and Thailand by renowned cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou (Girl on the Bridge), Two Brothers showcases the most spectacular scenes of Southeast Asia ever captured on film. Plus, a moving score by Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare in Love) adds to the film’s already heartwarming narrative.
Anyone who has dreamt of witnessing the Bengal tiger in its natural habitat will certainly enjoy the opening sequence of Two Brothers, where Koumal and Sangha frolic through the jungle kicking a coconut back-and-forth like a soccer ball. But like all animal dramas (think Bambi or Born Free), Two Brothers contains material that may be inappropriate for children younger than 7. Although Annaud and screenwriter Alain Godard (The Name of the Rose) tiptoe around the subject of sex, discreetly showing tigers mating, they aren’t shy when it comes to their feelings about animal abuse. Fortunately, the filmmakers know exactly how to make a strong political statement, speaking out against man’s role in the extinction of the Bengal tiger, without alienating the film’s target audience -- children between the ages of 7 and 12. However, be advised that Two Brothers may elicit tears from both parents and children and features scenes where the tigers are chained inside cages, yearning to be set free.
This of course, is painful to watch and will likely leave you so outraged that you’ll become a card caring member of PETA. But don’t let that deter you. For if Annaud does anything in Two Brothers, it’s bring out affecting performances from his entire cast, highlighting the beauty and intelligence of the Bengal tiger. As usual, the always-riveting Guy Pearce (Memento) is nothing short of brilliant as Aidan McRory, the international explorer torn between his conscience and his duties as a colonial servant, while newcomer Freddie Highmore (the soon-to-be Charlie Bucket in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is downright charming as Raoul, the precocious son of Monsieur Normandin. But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s Koumal and Sangha, who in 109 minutes do for the Bengal tiger what it would take a million animal rights activists to do in a lifetime.