LET'S GET THIS straight: the family-friendly, animal-centric March of the Penguins is now the second-highest-grossing documentary ever; meanwhile, the cheetah-starring specialty release Duma is getting some of the year's best reviews in the few test cities where it's playing, and Warner Bros. still hasn't got any plans to bring it to Seattle. And another thing: Seattle is where Duma director Carroll Ballard's 1979 The Black Stallion played for 36 weeks (!) at the Crest (then a first-run house).
Now I love sex-and violence-filled R-rated movies as much as much as the next childless film critic, but it's the G-rated stuff that's keeping Hollywood afloat these days. You'd think, pace Penguins, that studios would be rushing to produce more uplifting fiction and nonfiction animal sagas—kind of like the boomlet after Born Free. Then, all we had on TV was Wild Kingdom. Now there's Animal Planet to prime the audience 24/7—and you know the ad rates for a Duma campaign would be cheap.
What's it about? Basically a 12-year-old boy and his pet cheetah, set in South Africa and based on a true story, a kind of Free Willy in the Kalahari with Hope Davis and Campbell Scott as the kid's parents. Roger Ebert says this about Duma: "Watching this movie, absorbed by its storytelling, touched by its beauty, fascinated by the bond between the boy and the animal, I was also astonished by something else: The studio does not know if it is commercial!" I'm pretty sure there was the same debate about Penguins: too cute, too simple, no big stars, can't make a video game out of it. But without any of those things, isn't Penguins' $71 million plenty commercial? And they haven't even started selling the DVDs yet.
After a test run in Chicago (thank you, Mr. Ebert), Warner Bros. finally decided to toe the waters in New York and Los Angeles, opening Duma there Sept. 30. A studio rep told our colleague Ella Taylor in her comprehensive L.A. Weekly story, "This is far from over. We didn't walk away from it, and we're still not," meaning there could be a national rollout if the numbers support the strategy. Yet director Ballard complained to L.A. Weekly: "Warner didn't allow any national reviewers to see the film. My interpretation is that they just wanted to get it out there so it could go on to DVD, they wouldn't have to risk anything more, and they'd get their money back and move on." In other words, with the Ebert blurb on the box, the DVD could be a strong holiday seller.
So, as is sadly often the case, Seattle viewers will have to take their cues from the tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York. Let's hope word of mouth does its work there. And here's a feathered footnote: When I spoke to Penguins director Luc Jacquet at SIFF this spring, he told me his next project would be a feature (his first) about a young girl who bonds with a wild fox. You know what people might be saying when it's released? This could be the next Duma.