Written by David Fowler, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman and Chuan Lu
Directed by Chuan Lu
Narrated by John Krasinski (English-language version) and Xun Zhou (Chinese version)
Grade: Two and a half stars
Nature doesn’t really deal in plot lines, but that doesn’t mean filmmakers don’t try to find them anyway.
Director Chuan Lu does a decent job of it in DisneyNature’s “Born in China,” opening this Friday in honor of Earth Day. The documentary, which focuses on a panda, monkey and snow leopard family as well as other animals, marries human emotion to the lives of animals in order to create narratives for the audience to latch onto. Though hardcore animal lovers will want something a little more scientifically deep and accurate, “Born in China” offers a unique, often funny and emotional opportunity to bond with animals on the other side of the world.
The rapidly paced film, only 76 minutes long, follows the animals through just over a year of their lives. All four of the stories focus specifically on families, mostly mothers and babies (though the golden monkeys plot focuses on an older brother dealing with a new baby sister). The movie balances pure animal moments, including a dominance fight between two female snow leopards, with emotional narration that highlights the loneliness of a young monkey or the protectiveness of the panda mother.
There’s a lot of emotion-based narration in the movie, and biologists might cry foul at the way that the film regularly attributes human emotions to the animals’ situations. By focusing on the feelings, however, the movie gives audience members not used to documentaries something to grab onto. It turns the animals into characters, and as a result deepens the audiences’ emotional attachment to them.
There are risks, of course. With animal documentaries death is always an option, and here one of the three animal subplots ends up with tragedy for all. Though we see a body the movie is deliberately vague about the aftermath, focusing instead on the Chinese belief that cranes take departed souls into the afterlife. Young kids might have question for their parents, though, so be prepared for that.
Thanks to cinematographers Irmin Kerck, Justin Maguire, Shane Moore, Rolf Steinmann, and Paul Stewart, the visuals are absolutely beautiful. China’s appearance in film has mostly involved the country’s cities, and their unexpectedness makes the sight of snow-covered mountains, lush forests and wide plain areas even more of a visual treat.
The movie is also surprisingly funny, though in a low-key way that never becomes imposing. Narrator John Krasinski helps with that, using a subtly dry timing that adds to the humor of the movie’s gentle asides. He also works well with the serious moments, never getting in the way of the animals.
Note: If you see “Born in China” opening weekend, DisneyNature will make a donation in your honor to the World Wildlife Fund. The donations will benefit pandas and snow leopards.