One of the occasional Imax pics that ventures into dramatic territory, “China: The Panda Adventure” also wants to spread the scientific word on the state and plight of the endangered black and white bear, whose bandit-like eyes have made it into one of the most instantly recognizable, if rare, creatures on Earth. This wobbly docu-drama ends up being caught in between the impulse to make theatrical a true story and the usual Imax mission of imparting information about the natural world in an entertaining way for families. Pic’s $2 million-plus gross-to-date is promising, however, and its bevy of gorgeous landscape photography of mountainous southeast China locales will keep the mega-screen B.O. going.
Despite being helmed by Robert M. Young, who knows more than a bit about docus and drama, “China” immediately plays as a wooden period piece. Soon after Ruth Harkness (Maria Bello) disembarks from her ocean liner in 1936 to pick up the remains of her dead husband, Bill, she finds that her mission has changed. Given his working journal by Chinese guide Quentin Young (Yu Xia), Ruth reads of Bill’s efforts (spoken in the blandest, most robotic voiceover possible by Paul Pape) to find a reported enclave of giant pandas in the distant Min Valley, and to prove that accounts of pandas attacking anything in sight are myths.Bill died of disease before he could finish his studies, but Ruth has another motive to get to his camp and complete his work: The big, bad professional hunter Dakar Johnston (Xander Berkeley), who knew and mocked Bill, is set to hunt down the furry animals, and considers Ruth to be an impossible romantic. Screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg’s dialogue between Ruth and Dakar couldn’t be more rudimentary, and — because the thesps are so enormously visible on screen — Bello and Berkeley have a bigger struggle trying to eke a dramatically true moment out of their several confrontations than their characters do trying to get to Min Valley.
Like Willard reading his dossier on Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” Ruth continues to peruse Bill’s journal as she travels upriver into the jungle, and the movie uses this device as a way of inserting original footage of wild giant pandas in their element, along with snippets of his observations about their truly passive, bamboo-gobbling natures. This is as awkward as most of the drama, but what nearly saves the adventure is the place itself: An impossibly sylvan region of cascading mountains, precipitous river canyons, with cottony clouds interweaving mountains the shape and texture of green salad. Lenser Reed Smoot finds, under the slender tale of eco-goodness overcoming nasty human predators, a genuine feeling for the environment that speaks more powerfully to the movie’s point. A coda, over closing credits, about the panda’s current plight, is terribly rushed and tacked on.