This is the story of magnificent creatures gorgeously photographed in a story that is quietly told and genuinely touching.
Two tigers meet in the jungle of Southeast Asia and are drawn to one another. Soon they have twins, shy Sangha and adventurous Kumal. They frolic, explore, and tease each other in the huge, vine-covered ruins of what was once a great temple. Then an adventurer named Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) arrives in search of sacred sculptures he can sell to collectors.
The father tiger, trying to protect the twins, attacks one of the hunters, and McRory shoots and kills him. The mother tiger was able to carry Sangha to safety, but Kumal is left behind. McRory befriends him, but must leave him with the village leader who permitted him to steal the statues. Kumal ends up in a circus, being trained to act fierce and jump through a hoop of fire.
Meanwhile, McRory helps a French official set up a staged tiger hunt for a cruel and insecure prince. The tiger he captures for the prince to shoot is the twins’ mother. Sangha goes to live with the official’s young son who loves him and cares for him tenderly. But Sangha is given to the prince, who wants to see him fight another tiger — Kumal.
The images are stunningly beautiful, with breathtaking close-ups of the twin tigers, who are expressive and moving both as frisky cubs and as adults. The story is truly told from their point of view, with long spaces of no dialogue. It is a true gift to see a story that trusts its audience enough to let them discover the story for themselves and that understands the eloquence of silence. The human characters are vivid enough to give the story more depth and context, but not so much that they interfere with the fairy-tale like journey of the heroes of the movie, Sangha and Kumal.
Parents should know that the movie has some very sad Bambi-style moments and some violence, mostly off-screen. The tiger cubs’ father is killed and their mother is shot and wounded. Sangha mauls a dog (we only hear about it and it is made clear that the dog was not killed) and Kunal is beaten (off camera). There are tense confrontations and unhappy relationships. Some children may find it uncomfortable when a mother is attracted to someone other than her husband and believes he is flirting with her, when a child loses his pet, or when characters speak harshly to each other. A strength of the movie is the positive portrayal of an inter-racial and inter-cultural romance.
This movie provides a very thoughtful introduction to complex issues. McRory and an English-speaking native (who will become his wife) debate the morality of killing wild animals and taking sacred artifacts from ruins. Families who see this movie should talk about the different ways that people see those issues but also about the way they discuss them with each other. What kinds of arguments are persuasive? How did his father’s disappointment in him affect the prince? How do you know when it is “good to take a chance?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Bear by the same director, and movies with similar settings, including The Lion King, Born Free and The Jungle Book. Older viewers should read Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Panther, which is very much like Kumal’s experience in the circus. Younger viewers will enjoy the humorous Zebra in the Kitchen.