'Born in China': Film Review

Both predictably cute and surprisingly affecting.

John Krasinski narrates Disneynature’s latest wildlife documentary, a diverting tour of the remote reaches of the Middle Kingdom.

Capitalizing on the convergence of the spring break holiday period and the annual April 22 observance of Earth Day, the seventh film in Disneynature’s documentary series features a principal cast consisting of three iconic species of bears, wild cats and monkeys native to western China.

By sticking closely to a proven format that focuses on the youngest, cutest members of these exotic wildlife groups, Born in China looks likely to charm families looking for some fact-based entertainment among the current proliferation of animated offerings, despite Disney’s trademark tendencies toward often excessive anthropomorphism. 

As the standard-bearers for China’s impressive roster of wildlife species, panda bears have often been characterized in human terms, particularly in the context of the government’s decades-long “panda diplomacy” efforts, as Chinese wildlife authorities have loaned out animals to zoos and research centers worldwide. This captive breeding program has been necessitated by ongoing poaching and the gradual destruction of the bear’s bamboo-forest mountain habitat.

Although large sections of the region are now protected, population numbers are only gradually increasing due to the species’ low birth rate, so the film’s focus on a female panda’s preoccupation with raising her young cub appears particularly appropriate. Dubbed Ya Ya by the filmmakers, the first-time mother spends much of her time attempting to curtail her cub Mei Mei’s wanderings, particularly her natural inclination to climb the larger trees interspersed between the bamboo groves. The cub’s efforts to seek both nurturing and independence provide much of the tension throughout the segment as the juvenile bear tries to break free of her mother’s doting care.

Not far away, a troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys inhabiting dense mountain forests forages for food while keeping a watchful eye out for deadly predators. The filmmakers make much of a young male they refer to as Tao Tao, who’s forced out of his family unit as he matures and joins an all-male sub-group they refer to as the “Lost Boys.” Although the ostracization of single males is a typical primate social behavior, the film suggests that the reason for his separation is an emotional response to the birth of his younger sibling. This rather strained attempt at monkey melodrama, which goes on to examine his frustrated attempts to return to the family fold, doesn’t work as well as the moments of abundant humor that are to be expected from familiar wild primate shenanigans.

Thousands of miles west on the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau, a rarely encountered female snow leopard raises her two young cubs in some of the harshest conditions almost anywhere on the planet. Contending with unpredictable weather and the chronically scarce availability of prey, the big cat called Dawa must defend her territory from other intrusive leopards so that she can hunt elusive wild goats, fleet mountain sheep and even formidable wild yaks. Providing for her two cubs through the unforgiving winter is her top priority, since the juvenile animals are still unable to hunt for themselves, but competition from other snow leopards could prove perilous to their survival.

Supporting roles throughout the film are played by the endangered Tibetan antelope species known as chiru, which faces ongoing threats from poachers coveting the animals’ super-fine fur for the production of “shahtoosh” shawls, and the rare, majestic red-crowned crane, a traditional symbol of longevity in China.

Director Lu Chuan, whose 2004 eco-thriller Kekexili: Mountain Patrol was a fact-based account of a Tibetan anti-poaching unit tasked with protecting the chiru, adopts a more sedate approach for Disney’s documentary. The film deliberately skirts any mention of the human-induced threats imperiling nearly all of the animals depicted and instead proffers a lighthearted approach that’s tinged with occasional drama, although nothing alarming enough to frighten away family audiences.

The script, credited to Lu, David Fowler and renowned nature filmmakers Brian Leith and Phil Chapman (the BBC’s Wild China series), emphasizes an accessible tone dominated by humor and wonder while imparting the basic natural history background on each species. In sometimes jarring contrast, John Krasinski’s frequently jokey narration may charm the under-10 set, but it grows increasingly grating on adult ears as the film progresses.

If all of the overemoting can be ignored, Born in China delivers gorgeous visuals in its close-up perspective on some of the world’s rarest wildlife species, as well as the imposing habitats they call home. Supported by Lu, Leith, Chapman and Disney producer Roy Conli (Tangled), four top wildlife cinematographers capture moments of awe-inspiring intimacy and thrilling confrontation that reinforce just how tenuous survival in marginal habitats can prove to be.

Production companies: Disneynature, Chuan Films, Brian Leith Productions
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Narrator: John Krasinski
Director: Lu Chuan
Screenwriters: David Fowler, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman, Lu Chuan
Producers: Roy Conli, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman
Directors of photography: Justin Maguire, Shane Moore, Rolf Steinmann, Paul Stewart
Editor: Matthew Meech
Music: Barnaby Taylor

Rated G, 79 minutes