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Two Brothers (June 24/04)

There's something awfully disturbing about Two Brothers, and it's not the fact that Guy Pearce is in it. On the one hand, it's well made and features two surprisingly compelling animals in the central roles. But on the other hand, director Jean-Jacques Annaud spends virtually the entire film putting said animals in one hazardous situation after another. It becomes almost impossible to enjoy the film because of that; unlike the experience of watching a Disney cartoon, we're always aware of the mistreatment directed towards these animals.

The story unfolds in early 20th century French Indochina, where two tiger cubs have just been born. Kumal and Sangha, as they are later named by their human captors, spend their days frolicking and having fun, which quickly comes to an end after their parents are murdered. The tigers are soon separated, with one sent to a circus and the other to the private collection of a French official. Also thrown into the mix is Guy Pearce as a cold-hearted hunter that finds himself charmed by the two brothers.

The most remarkable thing about the film is the way Annaud has managed to elicit actual performances out of these animals. We can easily sense when they're scared or happy, which is - quite frankly - part of the problem. They've been anthropomorphized to such an extent that it's impossible not to sympathize with them, but there's just something incredibly unappealing about watching real animals in danger (phony or not). In the case of certain sequences - ie the mother tiger attempting to save one of her cubs from captivity - one can't help but wonder just what's supposed to be so entertaining about all of this.

Exacerbating Two Brothers' transgressions is Annaud's decision to shoot the film using digital cameras. In doing so, he's given this cinematic tale a decidedly uncinematic feel; despite the widescreen frame and Jean-Marie Dreujou's active camerawork, we're never able to disregard the very specific look afforded by digital photography. Among the human actors, only Pearce manages to make any kind of an impact (not surprisingly). His story arc is incredibly predictable, but that's the least of the film's problems.

There comes a point at which the movie could logically end - with a happy ending for the two tigers, no less - but Annaud just can't resist subjecting the animals to more peril. The film does conclude on a positive note, though it's not enough to make us forget all the unpleasantness that preceded it.

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