It’s hard to forget the wonderful 1966 movie, “Born Free,” which delighted audiences around the world. This weekend, another film is poised to take its place.

Based on an original script by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (“The Name of the Rose,” “Enemy at the Gates”), Universal Studio’s “Two Brothers” is set in Indonesia during the early part of the century. It recounts the story of two tiger cubs who are captured and separated, then forced to fight one another in the ring as adults.

Guy Pearce (“Memento,” “The Count of Monte Cristo”) plays Aidan McRory, a hunter and author who regularly loots the jungle of its precious artifacts, and who unwittingly sets into motion the events that will pit the animals against one another.

“I feel very empathetic toward animals,” Pearce said, explaining why he had taken the role. “So much of the time, I think they’re confused and lost and trying to survive and just trying to find love – all the things that we’re doing.”

With its anthropomorphic projections, “Two Brothers” harks back to Annaud’s 1989 film, “The Bear,” in more ways than one, particularly the manner in which it makes protagonists of the tigers, walking them through a conventional plot arc. Annaud used close-ups, tracking and cutaway shots to heighten the illusion of understanding and even sharing the complex emotions of the animals.
 
“When I wrote the script, I could not have imagined that the tigers would have so many expressions and sounds,” Annaud said. “With 'The Bear,' it was enough for the bear to look right, left or up, and I would intercut. But with the tigers, there was such a variety of expressions in their eyes, in their mouths and in their ears that we had to get it exactly right.”

Getting it right meant using 32 different tigers – 26 from France, 2 from the United States and 4 from Thailand – many of which were not yet born when the filming began. All of the tigers were transported to Cambodia, where the film was shot, including the vine-covered Temples of Angkor, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The film plunges us into the world of tigers, encouraging us to root for the two brothers as they undergo painful separation from their parents and each other, as well as the confusion of living among strangers in a foreign world. A subplot involves a young boy (Freddie Highmore) who adopts one of the cubs, eating, playing hide-and-seek and even sleeping alongside the baby tiger.

“Most children identify very easily with animals,” Annaud said. “Our world, which is full of words, is very difficult to comprehend, whereas the body language of an animal is very easy to understand. Also, young tigers are like [children.] They have the same problems – and the best thing is to be with the people we belong to.”

Chocolate was used to make the cubs sneeze. When Annaud needed a yawn, trainers fed the cubs milk bottles. And, in an ironic twist, the crew spent their days in cages while the animals roamed around in a three-mile enclosed area.

“We could never forget that tigers are extremely dangerous animals,” Annaud explained. “They are very seductive. They can charm you, they can be your friends and they can love you – until the day that they eat you. So we took the maximum protections.”

The most challenging scenes, he said, were the ones where the tigers needed to be asleep. The seemingly limitless energy of the young cubs often kept the crew waiting for hours on end.

“I remember with this one scene, where a tiger wakes up a cub with his tail,” Annaud said, with a laugh. “We got cramps, waiting for more than four hours. Finally, the cub fell asleep, but we had to wait another 15 minutes to really make sure that he was asleep. Then we had to bring the other tiger over very quietly and put his tail through the cage [to wake up the cub.]”

For really dangerous scenes, they used animatronic puppets, filming the actor with an “over-the-tiger’s-shoulder” shot. Annaud used real tigers for 99 percent of his shots, however.

In one exceptional scene at the end of the film, Pearce approaches a tiger and strokes him. This was the only time that anyone was allowed next to one without protection.

“I had worked with the tigers for about six weeks,” Pearce said. “And I had a lot of respect for the fact that it wasn’t safe, but after spending months with them, they knew I had a lot of respect for them. … We had a cage right behind me, though.”

Pearce filmed the part during a one-year sabbatical, traveling back and forth between Cambodia and his native Australia to be with his wife. The day he arrived on the set, Annaud took him into the chicken-wire cage where they were filming. One of the tigers, playing with a rope, jumped into the air and fell onto their cage.

“The photographer leapt to the back of the cage,” Pearce said, “But I thought, ‘Wow, man! This is going to be the most exciting job I’ve ever worked on!’”

Annaud chose Pearce for his natural instinct for animals. He also liked the fact that Pearce was born in England and grew up in what Annaud called “a colony,” a theme that is reflected in the period film. And, he said, he liked Pearce’s morphology, which is tall and thin and matches the way many men looked at that time. Pearce’s character was loosely based on Henri Malraux, the Frenchman who was imprisoned in 1923 for looting Cambodian temples and who became the French Minister of Culture, a role that inspired him to protect national monuments. Tiger hunter Jim Corbett, who ultimately created the first national park in India to protect tigers, also inspired Annaud in his story of a man who comes to respect nature.

It is a theme that the director longs to convey with his fable-like film.

“I hope that, with this movie, we can give a little message that people can carry home in their hearts, so that they will think twice about cutting a tree or killing an animal,” Annaud said. “I don’t want to sound too ponderous, but after all, this is why we make movies.”

Born free or set free, “Two Brothers” will challenge us to think about what it means to be stewards of the world’s animal kingdom, even as it entertains and charms us.


"Two Brothers" opens Friday, June 25, 2004 in theaters nationwide.