Movie Review: Disney celebrates the People’s Republic of Pandas in “Born in China”

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When you think of the wonders of nature, chances are China isn’t the first place that probably pops to mind.

Its vast population and 75 years of Communist oppression, censorship and recent years of resource-devouring expansionism and regional muscle-flexing can make us forget that the cutest critters on Earth, pandas, call it their home.

So “Born in China,” this year’s Earth Day offering from Disney’s documentary division, DisneyNature, is something of an eye opener. Those 1.4 billion people — including including the seven million of occupied Tibet — live mostly in cities. That leaves vast mountain wildernesses, high, sparsely-populated plateaus whose pristine rivers feature breathtaking waterfalls, deserts and bamboo forests for wildlife.

The film, narrated by John Krasinski, sets out to tell us about red-crowned cranes, Tibetan antelope (not named “Tibetan” here, but “chiru”), golden monkeys, snow leopards and pandas. But since birds and antelope aren’t particularly cuddly, Lu Chuan’s film settles in on a panda mom and her cub, a snow leopard and her two cubs, and a tweenage monkey trying to find his place in “the family.”

Dawa, the snow leopard, lives on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the “highest in the world,” we’re reminded. What we’re not told is the “Tibet” part of the name. It’s an arid, wild place where mountain goats and the calves of domesticated yaks are the snow leopard’s prey. Not marmots, Krasinski jokes. Too funny looking. Bigger game.

“In Dawa’s world, you must take life to give life,” Krasinski narrates. Disney never tires of reminding us of “The Circle of Life.”

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The film makes the point that leopards and pandas being solitary animals, the mothers dote on their children, just for the company. The snow leopard frolics are cute, the panda footage as adorable as you might expect.

Mei Mei, the baby panda, tumbles down hills, tries and fails (a lot) to climb trees as her mom coddles, tugs at and plays with her in the full knowledge that she’s growing up and moving away someday soon, leaving mom alone again, nibbling her “40 pounds of bamboo a day, 40 POUNDS” in solitude.

The golden monkeys live in extended families that viewers of any nature doc about primates will recognize — a patriarch, lots of females collaborating (comically) to raise the young, adolescent males banished to live in a pack all their own. Disney calls those males “The Lost Boys,” (of course) which is where Tau Tau, the monkey, spends his time.

There are predators — wolves, goshawks. And there is death, mostly off-camera. This is Disney, after all. Let the BBC have nature snuff films all to itself.

It’s a lovely, informative movie that flirts with cloying, but never quite gets there. It was also made with Chinese money and participation, and Disney desires to curry favor in the People’s Republic. That can be felt in every effort to erase “Tibet” from human memory.

Krasinski’s light voice works best in actorly interjections — “Whoa!” and the like. But he often sounds like he’s reading, and when he’s reading he might as well be selling car insurance on TV.

G-rated and very short, “Born in China” is padded with a long, funny and revealing behind-the-scenes closing credits.

All in all, it’s an eye-opening offering from DisneyNature, even with the Chinese pandering, Chinese spin and image-burnishing we can sense was part of the package.

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MPAA Rating: G
Cast: The voice of John Krasinski
Credits: Directed by Lu Chuan, written by David Fowler, Brian Leith. A DisneyNature release.
Running time:  1:12

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