'Born in China' lives and dies with cuteness
- By Teddy Durgin -
How much you enjoy the new documentary, "Born in China," may depend on how much you are able to tolerate people around you crying out "Awwwwww!" every three or four minutes at the sight of an impossibly adorable panda cub, twin leopard cubs, a baby monkey and a newborn antelope peering into the camera. If you have a high threshold for such open-hearted preciousness, you'll love this film. If the very thought of that kind of movie-theater behavior makes every part of your lower extremities clench, avoid this safari.
"Born in China" is a beautifully photographed doc that does its G-rated job of getting parents and their kids to give a darn about nature for about 80 minutes. It might as well be set to a humming chorus of Elton John's "Circle of Life," because it's all about the birth-life death-rebirth cycle of God's creatures set across four seasons in a calendar year. Oh yes, there is a bit of death that your little ones should be prepared for. Disney has been making animal snuff films for decades starting with "Bambi" on through to "Finding Nemo." It's not the "Rogue One" of nature films. But there is one notable passing that gives the film some much-needed dramatic weight and substance in the end.
We follow four separate animal "families." One is a super-cute panda mom named Ya Ya and her newborn daughter, Mei Mei. Their story is the most innocuous. They basically just climb trees and eat bamboo all day, and Ya Ya fears her little one growing up. The second is a herd of "chiru," or antelopes, with babies learning to walk and run for the first time. They have to stick close to the herd with predatory wolves nearby.
The third family is Dawa, a spectacular snow leopard, and her two cubs who are threatened by a rival leopard and her three sons who want to claim Dawa's hunting grounds. Finally, we have Tau Tau, an adolescent monkey who is jealous of his newborn baby sister and seeks to rebel by running away from home (er, sort of) and join a rogue pack of monkeys the filmmakers nickname the "Lost Boys." They have no loyalty or family ties whatsoever.
The editing between the four storylines keeps the overall narrative flowing. Sure, the film falls into the usual nature doc rhythm of the calm narrator instructing the viewer to, "Observe these Chinese monkeys. They live only to play in the tall treetops of this exotic Far East jungle." Cue the foreboding music. "But there are predators in those treetops..."
Or, "Behold the beautiful chiru, known in other cultures as the antelope. See the first hesitant walk of the young. Delight as that walk turns into a prance, then a run." Cue the foreboding music. "They'd better run, for there are wolves watching, always watching for the young to stray from the herd..."
But, hey, this structure still works. Sure, I think they cheated on a few occasions to goose up the drama. The predatory hawk doesn't really seem to be that close to one vulnerable monkey near the end. But they got enough shots of the bird swooping through the trees in menacing fashion that they could intercut with the cute, lonesome primate looking concerned into camera to create doubt. It's kind of like on "Survivor" when one contestant says something like, "I'm voting that guy out at the next tribal council. He's a SNAKE!" Then cut to some asp or rattler slithering on a log that's supposedly nearby, but there's no way.
At any rate, the best part of these Disney documentaries is always the end credits when they show the human crew on location trying to get the best shots. My favorite moment is when the director looks into camera and whisper-screams with child-like glee, "We're tracking the snow leopard stalking a sheep RIGHT NOW! It doesn't get any better than this!" Hehe. I guess we're all predators and prey, huh?
"Born in China" is rated G.