'Pandas': Film Review


The giant-screen Imax format is an ideal fit for this giant panda documentary.

They may not be versed in the ancient discipline of Kung Fu, but Qian Qian and company prove every bit as awesome in the gorgeously immersive Pandas, a live-action Warner Bros. and Imax collaboration.

Chronicling the challenges faced by Chinese researchers in regard to preparing captive-bred giant pandas for release into the wild, the involving, breathtakingly photographed documentary makes the most of its 43-minute running time. The upshot should prove especially irresistible to audiences of all ages when the large-format film rolls out Friday in select Imax and, especially, Imax 3D theaters.

Having had success in creating a safe haven for their country’s adorable but borderline endangered national symbol, scientist Hou Rong and her colleagues at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan Province found themselves faced with a dilemma: How do they condition the several hundred pandas born in captivity for reintroduction into the surrounding mountainous land reserves, giving them their best shot at survival in the face of bamboo die-offs and mud slides?

She found a viable answer all the way over in the forests of New Hampshire, where Ben Kilham has spent the past two decades raising orphaned black bear cubs in an eight-acre protected enclosure allowing for socialization with other cubs and foraging before later being successfully released back into the woods.

Convinced Kilham’s reintroduction method would be helpful for the pandas back home, Hou Rong recruits Jake Owens, an American conservation biologist schooled in working in rugged terrains, to come to China. The resulting touching bond he forms with Qian Qian (pronounced Chen Chen), a female giant panda cub with a strongly defined, highly inquisitive personality, serves as the affecting heart and soul of the production.

After previously teaming on the Imax documentaries Islands of Lemurs: Madagascar and Born to be Wild, co-directors David Douglas and Drew Fellman achieve the ideal balance of tender storytelling delivered with a conservationist message. But it’s ultimately the visual experience offered that sets Pandas apart from the titles in the impressive wildlife series from Disneynature, which prominently featured the animals in 2016’s Born in China.

That majestic 9,000-foot-high terrain proves to be an ideal match for the Imax format, while the 3D film cameras provide for undeniably immersive viewing. You’ll catch yourself wanting to reach out and touch that invitingly tactile panda fur, but not before attempting to swat away those pesky flies that seemingly keep buzzing around your 3D glasses.

And who better to narrate a film filled with cuddly pandas than Kristen Bell, the irrepressible voice of Anna in Frozen (there's even a sequence in which Qian Qian deconstructs a snowman), while Mark Mothersbaugh, who also composed Douglas and Fellman’s previous documentaries, delivers the appropriately playful score.

Production companies: Imax Entertainment, Imax Documentary Films Capital, Jin Yi Culture Investment (HK), Panda Productions
Distributor: Warner Bros./Imax
Narrator: Kristen Bell
Directors: David Douglas and Drew Fellman
Writer: Drew Fellman
Producers: Drew Fellman, Steve Ransohoff, Donald Kushner
Executive producers: Elie Samaha, David Haring, Li Xiao Dong
Director of photography: David Douglas
Editor: Beth Spiegel
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh

Rated G, 43 minutes