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There is a long history of ‘animals on a journey’ movies. Most of the time these are aimed at children and don’t gain much of an appreciation among the adult crowd. Personally, I spent four years of my life working at various day-care centres while attending college, so I’ve seen a lot of them. Like any genre, there are some great films (Milo and Otis), some good films (Babe), some OK films (Far Away Home), and some films that fester like un-refrigerated meat (Gordy). An undeniable classic of the genre is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear; one of the few animal-centric films to not employ the cheater’s technique of giving the animals human voices. The Bear is such an admirable work because it has little actual dialogue, but manages to tell a compelling story any human can understand through editing and animal performances. Annaud is at it again this year with Two Brothers, a more mainstream film that draws several comparisons to its nearest kin.

Oh no! An evil mongoose!
Film
In the jungles of Vietnam, twin tiger cubs are born. They live in a wondrous world of ancient ruins, and lead a relatively carefree life. One day a treasure hunter and his crew come to steal statues from their home for sale on the black market. During the commotion, the twins’ father is killed and the shyer of the cubs captured. The remaining cub and his mother escape into the jungle. It’s not long before they too are captured, the mother hunted for sport, the cub taken in as a pampered family pet. The shy cub finds himself in a run-down circus, where he is abused and tormented by his trainers. The other cub is ejected from his adopted family, and is secretly sold as a ferocious fighter. He is tortured at even greater length then his brother to toughen him up in preparation for a fight to the death in front of debonair spectators.

I’m sure from the quick synopsis I’ve supplied most readers can guess where the story goes from here; the brothers find themselves locked in mortal combat. The plot does delve a little deeper, but not much. After the brothers’ reunion, the movie mostly just treads water to its end. There are a couple human characters involved, only one of which (the treasure hunter, played by Guy Pearce) gets much screen time or character development. It’s likely that they’re only given speaking lines to create an anchor for the less imaginative members of the audience (i.e. the grown-ups). It is interesting, however, how the few, semi-shallowly written human characters are woven in and out the tigers’ story. It’s kind of like Magnolia for kids, only with tigers instead of drug addicted molestation survivors, lonely cops, and quiz show wiz-kids.

But let us not forget the tigers. If you love looking at adorable tiger cubs, the first half of this movie is for you. Let’s face it, baby animals are hard not to adore, even if they are being consistently tortured by their human captors. One has to respect the time and effort of editing hundreds of hours of tiger cub footage to a reasonable time frame, and simultaneously creating the illusion of an acting performance out of an animal that has no idea as to what a movie even is. Then there are the adult tigers, which exude genuine emotions. They cry as convincingly as Audrey Hepburn, and their cowering abilities match those of any Oscar contender. How healthy it was for these animals to be constantly emoting artificially is, however, left to be discovered.

Portrait of a family...before the disaster.
The problem with Two Brothers is that the trainers and filmmakers do such a great job convincing us that these tigers are suffering fear, dread and pain, that the picture loses its entertainment value. For example, one normally wouldn’t expect Schindler’s List to be a fun movie to watch, but a rewarding one, thus they would be psychologically prepared for some emotionally rough experiences. The entertainment value of the film is based on the viewer’s response to the subject matter. And thus, Schindler’s List was not advertised as a children’s film. One might expect a more light-hearted approach to a film advertised as a children’s film about the fun journey of two adorable tigers. When one is instead presented with a gruelling portrayal of hell-on-earth for fifty minutes (okay, I’m exaggerating), the experience tends to become even more uncomfortable because of the previous expectations.

The conundrum here is that this unexpected chain of horrifying events is played off tastefully and truthfully. Giving an audience something they hadn’t expected that challenges them intellectually and emotionally is normally a sign of good filmmaking. Should a film advertised as being for children, which is in fact not naive or light-hearted, be seen as a failure? The fact that I found myself so emotionally involved with the non-human main characters is really a sign of fine craftsmanship on the part of Jean-Jacques Annaud, but at the same time, I was resenting him constantly for what he was putting me through. On the other hand, most exploitative art does raise an emotional response. Is Two Brothers just an exploitation flick, or is there really a deeper meaning to it?

The Nature versus Man theme is not a new one to film, and unfortunately, Two Brothers portrays this theme in a very black and white context. The tigers are never shown hunting, and are only seen eating humanly prepared meat, like sausages and plucked chickens. Come on guys, these are carnivores; the natives fear them because they are want to be feared. The humans come across as nothing but cruel or ignorant or both, with the exception of the one child character. The heavy-handedness of Two Brothers’ messages really depletes from the films overall value. It’s all a little too shallow, kind of like a PETA propaganda film. Personally, even as an animal rights advocate, I found myself a bit embarrassed by the clear cut ‘hunting is bad’ message. Myasaki’s Princess Mononoke covers similar themes in a more satisfying way.

Hiding from the horrible humans.
The audience for a movie like this is mostly made up of children. As someone who’s worked with children, I could almost see them shouting at the screen, “Stop hurting the tigers!” It’s because of my reaction to how I’d think an average kid would handle this movie that I find myself unable to recommend it to the majority of the public. I’m not sure whom the film was made for, other than the people who actually made it. Not that there’s any thing wrong with someone making art for themselves.

Video
When Jean-Jacques Annaud made The Bear, he found that he could never get enough footage of the animals behaving naturally. The problem was that he had a limit on the amount of film he could use. To quell this problem during the making of Two Brothers he employed digital cameras to capture the animals at play. For the more theatrical moments, and most of the moments involving actors, he used the standard 35mm film. The problem is that the difference is very obvious in the digital format. The digital camera doesn’t match the 35mm in colour at times, and it becomes very blurry during abrupt camera moves. The end result is a mish-mash of documentary style footage and more classic style film images. This kind of self-aware film changing is interesting when it’s presented in a movie like Kill Bill, but in the context of this film it’s kind of jarring. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is very crisp and colourful however, and not at any fault for the film problems. This is still rather new technology, and I can see it’s going to be a while before filmmakers really get the hang of it.

Audio
Two Brothers is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. It’s not a very involving mix, but it gets the job done. Some of the jungle scenes have a decent surround presence, as various jungle sounds subtly engross the listener and some of the music is pretty lively. Dialogue is well dispersed and I never had to adjust the volume during my viewing. A-Okay.

Tiger tiger burning bright...Oh God, put him out!
Extras
Like most DVDs aimed at children, there isn’t much in the way of special features or making of information. There is a commentary track with the director that pretty much covers, at least audibly, any information about the project. Annaud is very warm, and his accent is discernable enough that almost everything he says can be understood. He is pretty enthusiastic, but honestly I wasn’t all that interested in what he had to say, and I’m not sure too many others will be either. He does make a few interesting points about working with animals and digital cameras though. Excerpts from Annaud’s personal journal can also be viewed, and are probably the most in-depth and needless feature on the disc.

The remaining features are grouped under various headings. ‘Fun with Tigers’ includes a forty-six second clip of various tiger (and director) roars under ‘Call of the Wild’ and a short documentary hosted by Guy Pearce called ‘Wild About Tigers’. The doc is pretty short at about thirty-six minutes, but covers all the basic facts about tigers from their evolution to their endangered status. Because the film takes place in a time before tigers where an endangered species, the documentary is sure to mention this fact often. A good doc for the kids, but not as good as some of the things they could probably see on The Discovery Channel. The heading ‘The Cast’ houses two featurettes, the first ‘Tiger Brothers’ recaps some of the facts from the previous documentary (for kids with really short attention spans) and briefly covers the tribulations of filming several different tigers. The second featurette, ‘Training Tigers’, explains to the kids that tigers are not natural actors, and describes some of the tactics the filmmakers used to create the illusion of acting. Under the heading of ‘Production’, viewers can find three more short little featurettes covering the creation of animatronic tigers for use in a few shots (‘Tiger Tech’), the various camera tricks involved with filming tigers (‘Tiger Cam’) and a quick look at some of the pictures from the location scouting process with commentary from the director (‘Location Scouting). Rounding things out are looks at costume design and storyboards.

Stupid pet tricks
Overall
Two Brothers is an admirable failure as a kids’ movie, but an interesting adult drama for anyone curious. Adults willing to use their imaginations a bit to fill in the gaps of the non-vocal performances may find themselves impressed with the dramatic and technical aspects of the film. I’ve scored the film as a children’s movie, but I’d say add one point for interested grown-ups. For those of you who are self-proclaimed sado-masochistic tiger-haters, this is the picture of the year; just don’t watch the happy ending. Also, from what I gathered, housecats love this movie; mine couldn’t turn away and even tried to join in on the action a few times.


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