There are more captive tigers in America than living in the wild around the globe, and a shocking number of those tigers are held as pets in backyards or exploited in roadside attractions. The title tiger in the kids’ drama The Tiger Rising, based on a bestselling book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, endures a similar plight. Yet, despite taking its title from the exotic animal at the center of the story, the film is far less interested in the real issues the tiger’s captivity points to than using the animal as a metaphor for the emotional troubles faced by the human children who stumble across him.
The movie focuses on Rob Horton Jr. (Sweet Tooth‘s Christian Convery), a dreamy 10-year-old whose father (Sam Trammell) has recently moved him to rural Florida following the death of his mother, Caroline (Katherine McPhee). Neither young Rob nor his father have processed the loss properly, and the boy’s suppressed grief has manifested itself in a nasty rash on his legs.
One day he finds a tiger trapped in a cage in the woods by the hotel where he lives. On the same day he meets Sistine (Madalen Mills), a new student in his class who buries her grief over her parents’ recent separation and the subsequent absence of her father from her life under an overwhelming anger. The two social outcasts soon start spending time together, leading Rob to show Sistine the tiger, whom she becomes preoccupied with freeing. At the same time, the tiger’s owner, the obnoxious hotel manager Beauchamp (Dennis Quaid), puts Rob in charge of feeding the tiger, leaving the keys to its cage – and the possibility of releasing the animal – in the hands of the child.
The Tiger Rising, which was written and directed by Ray Giarratana, is supposed to be the touching story of how two down-on-their-luck children overcome heartache, but the elements of the movie – and the complete and utter carelessness with which the wild animal they rally around is treated – make it impossible to feel moved by the story. Part of the issue is the narrative is riddled with cliches, from Rob’s dead mother to his emotionally distant father. Perhaps worst of all is Willie May (Queen Latifah), the maid at the hotel where Rob lives who is yet another example of the tired trope of the wise African-American sage.
Ironically, Queen Latifah is also the most watchable part of the film, imbuing her stereotypical character with a warmth and intelligence that much of the rest of the film lacks. While Convery and Mills do their best with the material they’re given, their scenes often come across as awkward and forced. Sadly Mills fares the worst, as her character’s anger often morphs into bullying and gaslighting Rob, making Sistine utterly unpleasant to spend time with. Meanwhile, Quaid makes his antagonist an over-the-top caricature, and while it looks like he’s having fun hamming it up, he’s a lot less fun to watch.
At several points it seems like The Tiger Rising wants to be an enchanting fantasy, especially when it spotlights Rob’s animated flights of fancy or the meaningful tales told by Willie May. However, the bulk of the story is also kept grounded in depressing reality. By trying to have it both ways, the movie as a whole is weakened. Plus, the story is so slow and meandering, any possible magic it conjures is quickly drained.
All of this is made even worse by the inclusion of the tiger, who’s only there to function as a plot device. But because Rob and Sistine are debating the freedom of a real tiger, their choices also have real consequences. The film could have taken the opportunity to educate the kids that are its target audience about the need to respect wild animals, but instead the filmmakers have no interest in saying anything meaningful about them or the challenges they face. As a result, the bulk of the tiger’s screentime consists of shots of the animal sitting around docilely as the kids carelessly lace their fingers through the its cage without any concern that it could hurt them.
Tigers don’t belong in cages, especially not tiny cages in the woods of rural Florida, but they shouldn’t be set free in those woods either. And having the movie’s 10-year-old characters weigh their options for the animal instead of dealing directly with their grief – or finding a better metaphor – doesn’t serve either the tiger or the story. The Tiger Rising isn’t a great film but there’s no excuse for it being an irresponsible one.