In 1920s French Indochina the jungles were teeming with life, and not all of it of the animal variety as opportunist Aidan McRory (Guy Pearce) led a band of looters to take back to the West what treasures they could find in the abandoned temples - if they couldn't lay claim to the bigger statues, they would simply cut off their heads and take those back with them as the price was just as lucrative. But there was another trade in the jungle, and that was capturing those animals, so little did Aidan know when he saved one of his colleagues from a tiger attack what he was getting into...
Actually, never mind about the actors in Two Brothers, it was quite clear what the filmmakers were interested in at the most were those tigers. The two brothers of the title are a pair of actual cubs (no puppets or CGI) who we follow from their infancy (from their conception, in fact) to adulthood where we have tentative hopes for their future. That's because the caption at the end tells us there were a hundred thousand tigers alive in the world at the time this was set, but now, when the film was released, there were around five thousand, a sobering statistic which offers a good reason why this was made.
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud had made animal fiction with real life subjects before, and his style of glowing natural imagery was very much suited to those, yet the accusation that his work had a better grasp on that sort of thing rather than any innovative narrative was well to the fore here, with a plot relying overmuch on convenience and coincidence in its attempts to appeal to the emotions. To his credit he was careful to mark out exactly why the tigers were facing extinction, and the locals were just as wary of them as the tigers were of the locals thanks to encounters where the villagers came off the worst - little wonder they were glad to see the back of them.
But Annaud was not going to side with those who hunted tigers for money rather than because they'd attacked someone and were maneaters, so it was that we were offered motives for their preservation that few reasonable audiences could disagree with. What they might have had more problems with was the cutesy depiction of the creatures - we never see them catch, kill and eat a single thing, for example, as if that aspect of their lives was all too unpalatable when they were meant to be seen as the victims we were on the side of, which spoke to a difficult to shift dishonesty. This did result in a bias weighted very much against most of the human characters, except for the morally ambiguous McRory and the small son (Freddie Highmore) of the French administrator (Jean-Claude Dreyfus).
Certainly the locals are shown to be nothing less than ignorant when it came to preserving their environment, which you may have mixed feelings about, but really this was an adventure story which happened to star two tigers, so we are introduced to them living with nature, then when their father dies at McRory's hands (or rifle, anyway) he "saves" one which ends up in a tawdry circus big cat taming act, replacing the old and decrepit tiger who is promptly made into a rug (!). Meanwhile his brother is also captured and becomes an ill-advised pet for the little boy, until he is imprisoned in the menagerie of one of the ruler's sons. But they will meet again, in a melodramatic fashion which would be more convincing if Annaud had perhaps emphasised the fairy tale nature of the story more: all those realistic shots of the animals interacting leave you wondering if a documentary would be more in his line. Still, it brought viewers closer to tigers than most would likely get safely, and its environmental message was hard to quibble too much about. Music by Stephen Warbeck.