DUMA — *** — Alexander Michaeletos, Eamonn Walker, Hope Davis; rated PG (violence, brief gore, brief drugs).

Director Carroll Ballard makes only one type of movie — family adventures that feature some sort of wildlife. To his credit, however, he does them pretty well.

Among the films on Ballard's resume are "The Black Stallion" (1979), "Never Cry Wolf" (1983) and "Fly Away Home" (1996), all of which are terrific dramas.

His latest is "Duma," a drama loosely based on Xan Hopcraft's memoir "How It Was With Dooms." Ballard's winning adaptation feels a little episodic, but it is certainly one of the better family films out there right now. (It's a little disheartening that the movie's original distributor, Warner Bros., basically cut it loose, but it's been revived now for a limited theatrical run.)

The word "Duma" is Swahili for cheetah and, coincidentally, is the name of an orphaned cheetah cub. Xan (Alexander Michaeletos), an inquisitive 12-year-old, and his father (Campbell Scott) find the cub wandering the highway and decide to adopt it.

Duma proves to be pretty docile, despite the presence of other animals living on the family's South African farm. However, when Xan's father dies, his mother (Hope Davis) decides to move to the city and takes Xan and his pet with her.

After a few days, though, the boy decides he's had enough of city living and runs away — using the excuse that he's taking Duma "home."

As you might expect, the journey to the jungle is perilous, but a wandering fortune hunter named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker) takes Xan under his wing and promises to get the youngster and his cheetah to their respective destinations.

Davis doesn't get as much screen time as she should, and there's not enough made about the fact that a young boy has gone missing in the South African countryside. But those are minor complaints about a movie that features a worthy message about respecting wildlife, and one that is so beautifully shot. (Kudos to cinematographer Werner Maritz and his crew for the postcard-quality photography.)

And newcomer Michaeletos has a very believable on-screen friendship with Walker ("Lord of War"), as well as with his scene-stealing animal co-star.

"Duma" is rated PG for a few scenes of violence and peril (most of them animal-related), some brief animal gore and some brief drug content (use of herbal medicines). Running time: 100 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com