“Born in China,” the newest documentary from DisneyNature, lands squarely in the middle of the series. While it’s much better than “Bears” and “Wings of Life,” it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Oceans” or “African Cats.” The Disney-fied story pushes the importance of family and the academic information is brief and spread a bit thin, but it’s still a wonderful educational tool for kids and adults alike.
John Krasinski does a great job as the narrator this go ’round, expressing an adept mix of empathy, humor, and authority. The storytelling format is the same as some of the past films in the series (telling the story in chapters bookmarked by the four seasons) and focuses on three different animal families, all given human-like personas and names so you’ll instantly become attached. This time it’s overprotective panda bear Ya Ya and her new baby Mei Mei, a group of golden snub-nosed monkeys and the outcast Tao Tao, and tenacious mama snow leopard Dawa and her two cubs. Along the way, there are glimpses of chiru (Tibetan antelope), red pandas, and yaks.
To make the film more exciting, there are some obviously clever editing choices that are pieced together in a way to create tension or action sequences (if you can call a hawk nearly picking off an infant monkey for dinner an action piece). Otherwise, it’s a brilliant cinema verite look at the vast, unspoiled terrain and fascinating animals of China. This film is worth seeing for the incredible footage of the snow leopards alone.
The film starts and ends with a harmonious spiritual tone, with majestic slow motion photography of red-crowned cranes taking flight. According to Chinese folklore, natives believe that whenever a crane takes to the sky it carries the soul of a deceased animal on its wings, thereby completing the circle of life. After this somber intro, suffice it to say that it doesn’t end well for one of the families; it’s a moving scene of such tragic beauty that I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. But that’s nature, right?
Parents should be aware that there are some substantial themes at play here and while the film is rated G, it still may be unsettling to some youngsters. You may find it prudent to talk to your kids about symbiosis, general biology, and the food chain before taking them to the theater. This is an absolutely wonderful tool for teaching the younger generation about respect for the environment and the animals that inhabit our planet, and I do not want to discourage anyone from taking a family trip to the movies to see it.
As with all DisneyNature documentaries, “Born in China” has astonishing, impressive camerawork that will at times leave you breathless and in tears from the chills of the sheer beauty of it all. The original score by Barnaby Taylor is as elegant, memorable, and breathtaking as the photography. Be sure to stay through the credits for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. I’m sure you’ll also be super jealous of the folks whose job it is to shoot these movies.