Two Brothers (2004) review-cuteness can only get you so far

Even though I adore animals in real life, I’m not really a big fan of live-action films about these creatures outside of nature documentaries.

No matter how well these movies are made, I always have a hard time getting immersed in a piece of entertainment where the main star is a trained dog or monkey who is obviously getting instructions from a trainer off camera.

I’m no hardcore animal rights activist, but that set-up became increasingly phony as I got older, which is probably why I had no desire to revisit 90s classics like Free Willy (1993), Air Bud (1997) or Fly Away Home (1996) until very recently.

For the purposes of this blog, I decided to give this genre another chance through Universal Studios’ “Animal Friends” collection, starting off with the forgettable but harmless Beethoven’s Big Break (2008).

While Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004) is better film overall, it still relies too heavily on cute animal shenanigans that simply can’t satisfy a feature-length running time.

In terms of plot, the movie revolves around Kumal and Sangha, two Indochinese tiger cubs who get separated after their father is shot and killed by a European author and treasure hunter (Guy Pearce).

While Kumal ends up performing for a local circus troupe, Sangha gets taken in by Cambodia’s French administrator after his son (Freddie Highmore) discovers the cub alone in the wild.

As these the two live out their lives separately for years, they long to escape captivity and reunite with their mother in the jungle.    

Even though I’m still not a big fan of these types of films, I still have to admit that Annaud does a pretty good job of delivering on the animal cuteness.

Not only does he capture some amazing footage of the twin tiger cubs frolicking in the Cambodian jungle, but he also gives those scenes room enough to breathe and make a sizable impression.

He accomplishes this feat by dedicating the first 12 minutes of the movie to the cubs and their parents almost exclusively, and doesn’t rely on voice-overs or any other shortcuts to communicate different story telling beats to the audience.

If this was an American feature, I have a feeling that the studio would’ve chickened out and paid Morgan Freeman to narrate this intro bit by bit, afraid that the audience would get bored without a human voice to guide them.

But Annaud is no stranger to crafting stories based on action and impressive nature photography alone, having already directed films like Quest for Fire (1981) and The Bear (1988) that are largely dialogue-free.

And these strengths shine through in the first 12 minutes of Two Brothers as well, with the Cambodian jungle and its ancient ruins providing a compelling backdrop for what’s ultimately a pretty simple story.

Unfortunately, the film kind of loses this purity once it introduces all the human characters, who aren’t interesting and don’t really add any flavor to the story.

For example, Guy Pearce is pretty lifeless as the aforementioned treasure hunter (McRory), which is too bad because it’s his job to bridge the human world and the animal world for the audience.

After gunning down the twins’ father, McRory feels bad about this turn of events and takes Kumal with him back to civilization, periodically bumping into the cub as he passes from owner to owner throughout the years.

Now, a talented actor could wring a lot nuance out of this kind of character arc, and Pearce has proven himself to be more than capable of navigating complex emotion ground throughout his career.

But for whatever reason, he absolutely sleepwalks his way through this role, with a consistently dull performance that does a poor job of outlining his character’s true feelings and motivation.

Even his accent is all over the place in this movie, waffling between an English and Australian inflection seemingly at random.

While Freddie Highmore fairs a little bit better at conveying the childlike wonder of owning a tiger cub, he’s not in the movie nearly enough to make a big impression on the audience.

As a result, basically all the emotional weight of the story rests on the tigers themselves, who don’t speak and are basically identical in terms of how they look and behave.

While this dynamic isn’t a big issue in short bursts, like the first 12 minutes of this film, the tigers’ inherent lack of relatability becomes a major problem as the movie goes on and they are asked to carry entire scenes by themselves.

One of the most glaring examples of this disconnect is when [SPOILERS] the now fully adult tiger cubs finally reunite, and Annaud (the director) must do all of the heavy lifting in this moment through his use of strategic edits and swelling music.

Admittedly, this is the same kind road block that most filmmakers encounter if they choose to produce a live-action animal epic that isn’t cushioned by celebrity voice-overs.  

Comedian W.C. Fields knew this when he famously coined the maxim “Never work with children or animals,” having personally witnessed how their unpredictable behavior can derail any film production.

And while Two Brothers never suffered any major behind-the-scenes snafus (to my knowledge), it’s over reliance on animal performers to tell the story wears thin around the one-hour mark, especially without any interesting human characters to fall back on.

Still, I think the team behind this project really had their hearts in the right place, ending the film with a rallying cry to protect these endangered Indochinese jungle cats from extinction.

That attitude comes across in the filmmaking as well, with Annaud and his team having a good eye for capturing natural landscapes and the majestic beasts who dwell within them.

But all that pleasant imagery can’t prop up a 100-minute movie, especially these days when people can get their tiger cub fix by watching three-minute clips on YouTube.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Frosted Flakes cereal (not because this movie is ggggreat, but because of … you know … tigers)

Fun facts:

-Release date: June 25, 2004

-Budget: $42 million

-Box office: $19,176,754 (US), $62,174,008 (worldwide)

-According to IMDB, around 30 different tigers were used in the shooting of this film, with most of them hailing from either France or Thailand.

-Five full-size animatronic tigers were built for this film, being reserved for any scene that might pose a real risk to an actor’s safety.

-Despite taking several safety precautions, Guy Pearce was reportedly bitten on the should by one of the tiger cubs, although this incident did not result in any serious injury.

-Outside of keeping their eye on the live tigers, the crew behind Two Brothers also had to steer clear of all the active landmines that still littered the Cambodian terrain at the time of filming.

– This film marks Freddie Highmore’s second feature film after appearing in the 1999 romantic comedy Women Talking Dirty

-If you’re looking for clips of Two Brothers on YouTube make sure you include the word “film” in the search bar, otherwise you’ll be directed to this classic bit from Rick and Morty.