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 the 1950 short “In Beaver Valley”: 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.