Film Review: ‘Born in China’

Born In China
PRNewsFoto/The Walt Disney Company

A gently stirring doc about pandas, snow leopards, and golden monkeys in the China wilds traces the circle of life — and death.

When you put the word “Disney” together with the word “nature,” it tends to call up images that are fuzzy and cuddly and anthropomorphically adorable — images of something, perhaps, too good to be true. “Born in China,” the new wildlife documentary from the studio’s Disneynature division, tells the story of three animal families — pandas, snow leopards, and golden snub-nosed monkeys — living in the colorful splendor of China’s sun-kissed mountains and woodlands. (There are also sideline excursions into tribes of antelope and red-crowned cranes.) The film, directed by Lu Chuan, has most of the qualities you remember from born-in-the-wilderness Disney docs going all the way back to “Beaver Valley” (1950): the narration so friendly and affectionate it just about grins (in this case John Krasinski reading lines like, “To them, this vast mountain range is just one rocky playground!”), the crystal-clear photography, the organizing of the life cycle into a benign kind of storybook fable, the whole gee-whiz rated-G feeling of “Animals — they’re just like us!”

Yet to describe “Born in China” as a sentimentalization of nature would be to sell Disney short. This is, after all, the studio that in “Bambi” (1942), its fifth animated feature, made the audacious and artful decision to have a hunter kill off Bambi’s mother, a twist echoed more recently in the plot of “The Lion King.” The spirit behind that decision — the notion that loss and death are all part of the circle of life — reverberates through “Born in China.”

This plays out most powerfully in the story of Dawa, a snow leopard fending for her two cubs along a cliff of craggy stone hills that she rules over as her own. Like a lot of people who will see “Born in China” (an audience that’s likely to be solid but limited), I had never heard of the snow leopard, and it’s a magnificent creature that looks less like a leopard than a beautiful spotted mountain lion. At first, Dawa is a triumphant protector, killing barrel sheep for her cubs, and when a rival leopard arrives to challenge her for control of the terrain, she stands her ground. The two cats square off, snarling and baring their formidable teeth, and the aggression is palpable, until the rival turns away.

But later, when that same interloper arrives, only now with her three adult sons, it’s ominous, like the sharks circling before a corporate takeover. Dawa tries to go up against them, but she scrapes her paw on the rocky ground. It doesn’t look like a major injury, but suddenly she can’t hunt. Things spiral downward from there. Her cubs, of course, are irresistible, and the sight of this animal family is stirring, but now they must face the possibility of being broken apart. By the end, you may wipe away a tear in response to Dawa’s mother courage and the forces that gather against it.

The essential technique of a Disney nature doc hasn’t changed. It’s to set up the camera for extended periods and simply observe these animals, catching not just their elaborate rituals but the drama of their personalities. Most of the time, though, the drama remains fairly placid, as in the sections devoted to Tao Tao, an adolescent golden snub-nosed monkey who has become an outcast in his family. The golden monkeys, at least to Western eyes, are an exotic species, with pouchy faces that make them look like Dr. Zaius in “Planet of the Apes.” They spend 90 percent of their time up in the trees, and the film captures a fantastic game in which they drop down from major heights to break branches. Their main predator, the goshawk, is a stern creature who at one point swoops in like a heat-seeking missile to make off with Tao Tao’s baby sister. Just like that, she’s gone. The tale of Tao Tao himself does feel a bit stitched together in the editing room, but there’s a touching moment when he finally reassembles with his family, joining them in a shivery huddle on the ice-crystal winter branches.

“Born in China” makes a number of pointed references to the ravishing glory of the Chinese wilderness, but what’s striking about it, really, is that the sections of Western and Central China in which the film was shot look so much like areas of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a bit of a revelation, because when we think of China, we tend to imagine either sprawling cities or a certain kind of decorous flat rural farming terrain. To the extent that “Born in China” is, by its very existence, a minor act of cross-cultural diplomacy, its most progressive effect is to unveil the majestic diversity of Chinese landscapes.

And, of course, to show us how pandas really live! China is the only place on earth where these roly-poly creatures exist in the wild, and the story that “Born in China” tells, of a panda named Ya Ya raising her child, Mei Mei, in the bamboo woods, is one of unadorned love and a kind of becalmed indolence. The tender comedy of pandas is that they really look like what they are: the soulful couch potatoes of nature. They basically sit around stuffing their faces, consuming up to 40 pounds of bamboo a day, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good at moving; one of Mei Mei’s crucial rituals is to learn how to scurry up a tree. In the most quietly touching story “Born in China” tells, these two must finally separate, not because anything harsh happens but simply because life happens, a lesson the movie presents with a simplicity that should resonate with adults and children alike.

Film Review: 'Born in China'

Reviewed at AMC Empire, New York, April 4, 2017. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 79 MIN.

Production

A Disneynature release of a Chuan Films, Brian Leith production. Producers: Roy Conli, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman.

Crew

Director: Lu Chuan. Screenplay: David Fowler, Brian Leith, Phil Chapman, Lu Chaun. Camera (color, widescreen): Justin Maguire, Shane Moore, Rolf Steinmann, Paul Stewart. Editor: Matthew Meech.

With

Dawa, Tao Tao, Ya Ya, Mei Mei.

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  1. Richard DuCharme says:

    ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL FILM!!

  2. Lisa says:

    Tao Tao’s sister doesn’t get taken by the Goshawk. In fact, it’s a major part of the narrative that his saving her from the goshawk gets him really welcomed back into the family again and is an indication that he’s grown up. (You watched it, right?).

  3. Patricia Thingvold says:

    A couple days after the two year anniversary of my husband’s death, I made the huge mistake of going to a Disney film thinking it would lift my spirits. There were children in this audience. I was too horrified to see how they reacted to the goring and death of the mother snow leopard, and her dead body is all I can see when I close my eyes.

    Whoever decided that some Jack Handley deep thoughts about cranes and souls would make everything better has a large screw loose.

    I’m glad to hear they intervened and saved the cubs because I was sure these last two days that they had starved to death.

    Are you guys NUTS? Yes, we know nature is cruel, but DISNEY is supposed to avoid that reality and give us images to make our lives happier, not worse. You need to edit and change the ending and test it with normal people or you are going to have a BOMB!

  4. Mara says:

    Dawa injured her paw going after a herd of goats, not trying to fight off the other leopards.

  5. Tisa Shillingburg says:

    I have mixed feelings about the movie. On one hand, I loved the realistic and unique look into all these animals lives but the snow leopard story really ripped my heart out. Seeing as the snow leopard is endangered, due mostly to humans, how could they possibly just let her die like that. I don’t regret going because a portion of the proceeds go to conservation efforts which I fully support but I left the theater crying my eyes out which wasn’t what I was expecting going into it. As always, I support Disney Nature movies but I really wish they would have saved the poor snow leopard. I know they’ll say that’s not realistic but when humans are the ones that are causing the difficulties for their survival, is it too much to ask for humans to step in and help when they can instead of just filming her die.

  6. Michelle Peacock says:

    Just saw Born in China-it was horrible!
    Tragic that we can’t appreciate the beauty of wildlife without creating a human narrative to try to create drama, exploit and sell it! I understand that they think they are giving homage to Disney but previous years of cultural brainwashing is one reason we are in this mess. The photography is gorgeous but the narration is outdated and insulting, the mother snow leopard is killed and we know her two babies die. Now if I were on that shoot I’d have saved all three snow leopards. Snow leopards are near extinction! What is wrong with you!!
    I can see the discussion around the producers table about how we should let children see death in the wild. Well ok, but humans are the reason all the big cats are near extinction and children need to know the truth. If they are going to see animals die, tell them the truth, the mother snow leopard dies because man is killing the planet and the snow leopard has no habitat and no food to eat! It was a disgusting example of all that is wrong in how animals are presented to the public. It’s the same reason that all the Disney films have the wolf or the tiger as the “bad guys” and kids grow up thinking they are bad animals and to be afraid! Disney needs a rethink on how their films affect children and adults. Beyond sad!

    • Ryan says:

      Actually, the producer, in an interview with the Boston Globe, said the cubs are safe and healthy. He didn’t expand on whether they were taken into captivity or protected in some other way, but did confirm they didn’t die.

    • gina says:

      Very well said. Love your answer and wish more people felt this way.

  7. nbean3 says:

    Jane – I thought the same thing!!! Who hasn’t heard of a freaking snow leopard?! Maybe he should get out of theaters every once in a while.

  8. Jane says:

    I’m sure I’ve never heard of many of the exotic animals found in China, but the writer has never heard of a snow leopard? Really, a snow leopard?

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