When I was a kid, a "nature film" was the short feature on "The Wonderful World of Disney" Sunday nights at 8. Usually you'd be treated to a baby animal cavorting in its native habitat for a full half-hour or so, then escaping a crisis, finding a mate and ambling off to continue the Circle of Life. The formula never changed; neither did the cloying narration by that drawling West Virginian baritone. ("Guess little Dakota won't be sniffin' around ol' Mr. Badger's den again anytime soon!")

My, how things have changed. Now, when animals star in the movies, they either come with celebrity voices and a script full of one-liners, or they go sign on with French director Jean-Jaques Annaud so they can really act.

Annaud's latest effort in an eclectic legacy of filmmaking - among his movies are "Quest for Fire," "The Name of the Rose" and "Enemy at the Gate" - is "Two Brothers," a fable of two tiger cubs whose lives take disparate paths. It's a nature film in that the tigers are the lead characters, and great care is taken to portray them in as natural a light as possible; but it's also a dramatic work of fiction (written by Annaud) with human actors supplying the necessary storyline and adding to the pathos of the cats' plight.

The story opens in the lush jungles of Cambodia as two adult tigers meet, greet and start a family among the ruins of an ancient stone temple. Annaud then cuts to the Western world of early 20th-century Europe in its heyday of materialism, where wealthy socialites bid on exotic rareties like elephant tusks and Oriental statues at an auction.

Guy Pearce is the only familiar human face in the movie - to American audiences, anyway - playing a world-famous hunter and explorer who's also a shrewd businessman. During an expedition to the tigers' home to collect more stone statues to sell, he's forced to shoot the male tiger. Mama makes her escape with one cub, and the remaining cub snuggles his way into Pearce's heart. After a series of circumstances, Pearce's cub winds up as a trained and spiritless circus tiger; the other is caged as a savage beast in a royal menagerie.

While their reunion and the spree of mayhem that follows is almost Disneyesque, Annaud brings the film's message back down to earth when Pearce is forced to hunt down the escaped cats, since they never learned to survive in the jungle and would be a threat to any humans they encountered.

"Two Brothers" is lovely to watch, not only because of the beauty and personality Annaud captures in the animals, but also in the sumptuous sets and costumes of French colonial Indochina. Though Annaud has said he tried to keep the amount of human interference in the tigers' tale to a minimum, there's a good deal of politics and economics going on in the story that will be completely lost on youngsters who just want to see the big cats.

And as true to nature as Annaud tries to be, he still takes advantage of the miracles of digital filmmaking such as composite shots, primarily for the actors' safety, and animatronic stand-ins. Some well-placed sound editing also heightens the emotion of the story - was that little cub sniffling as he watched his brother disappear down the road in that truck?

For all the power and ferocity of its subjects, "Two Brothers" is a warm yet delicate film, whose message about wildlife conservation works because it stays within the context of its setting. If you can leave your kids alone in "Spiderman 2," buy your own ticket for this film. Better yet, convince the kids to join you.

"Two Brothers"

Rated PG for mild violence

Starring: Guy Pearce, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Freddie Highmore, Oanh Nguyen

Directed by: Jean-Jaques Annaud

Length: One hour 49 minutes

Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas

Short take: Two beautiful tigers star as brothers who are separated and reunited after very different lives in early 20th-century Indochina. It's a warm and real family film that exemplifies its message of respect for its animal subjects.

Rating: Three stars (out of four)

Movie trivia: What did the filmmakers give the Phnong natives of Cambodia's Mondal Kiri province in return for their help constructing a realistic village for a set?

Answer: Built as permanent structures, the houses were donated to the villagers.

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