Venturing into the wilds of China, “Born in China” captures intimate moments with a panda bear and her growing cub, a young golden monkey who feels displaced by his baby sister, and a mother snow leopard struggling to raise her two cubs.
Disney manages to put its stamp on everything it releases, sometimes to great nostalgic effect (that opening Disney logo tune that always sends a lump careening up my gullet), at others evoking groans (extreme sentimentality, from its song-and-dance numbers to the reduction of a spectrum of emotions and themes to two, maybe three obvious ones). Chan Lu’s gorgeously shot documentary is pure Disney, through and through, from its positive, age-old messages of conversation (most evidently enforced in the PSA leading up to the film), to the obviously edited storylines of its animal protagonists. Goofily narrated by John Krasinski, who goes all out by even voicing animals sliding on ice, one almost expects Carmen Twillie to croon about life’s circles towards the film’s end when the doc gets as tangled up in metaphors about life and rebirth as its adorable snub-nosed monkeys do in tree branches.
Those little golden simians are just some of the animals the documentary anthropomorphizes by awarding them names and tracking their very human-like lives throughout the four seasons in various parts of China’s wilderness. Misleadingly putting pandas – one of humans’ most beloved creatures – on the poster (evidently to draw a bigger crowd), this film is only partially about Ya-Ya and her cute cub. Dao, the snow leopard, attempts to save her two babies from starvation; there are inconsequential shots of grazing antelopes, the chiru; while the crane, “a symbol of longevity and good fortune,” gets the feces end of the stick by appearing as a mere symbol within the film, in the prologue and at the very end.
“Born in China” was designed to provoke two strong responses: “Aww, how adorable!” and “Aww, how sad!” The only grays in the doc are the effervescent fogs descending over endless alleys – everything else is as black and white as the pandas. There are plenty of embellishments, which I guess are forgivable, considering its target audience: young children, who would most likely get bored/ frightened by anything too static/violent. So it’s right there, in the middle, never showing us the full glory of the hunt, but not settling down for a moment of contemplation either.
It’s actually rather impressive, how well-orchestrated (read: edited) some of the sequences are: the filmmaking team actually managed to pull off an entire storyline of an underdog monkey, Tao-Tao, who joins a gang of outcasts led by a violent Rooster (allusions to “The Warriors”?) and then returns to his loving sister and tough-love father. “He’s certainly a hero in his sister’s eyes,” Krasinski comments gently, and one can’t help but BELIEVE.
In my cynical mind, none of this ever happened. One shot, in particular, involving the baby panda encountering a red panda, has me convinced it was filmed at different locations, at different points in time. I may be wrong – but the fact that the film made me constantly consider this renders those fabrications a distraction, at least for those of us over the age of eight.
Nature needs to be preserved and loved and cared for, and so I applaud the existence of “Born in China,” fake as its “plot” may be. It’s hard to hate on a film about freakin’ pandas, after all, they’re just so adorable. Kids at the press screening dug it – the fact that their ADD-addled minds stayed focused is a commendable feat for an 80-minute nature doc. Chuan Lu essentially made an extended early-morning PBS nature episode with a higher budget. It’s an (animated) step or two away from becoming Disney/Pixar’s “Pandas 3-D,” with a moderately violent “Bambi” moment thrown in here and there for good measure. Enjoy it with the wee ones, and then let Sir David Attenborough take you on a real journey through nature’s majesty.
In theaters Friday, April 21st