Pandas are God’s oversize Teddy bears, big and roly-poly in a so-cuddly-it’s-funny, designed-by-nature-for-Gund way. Their whole two-toned look — the snowy heads set off by adorable dabs of black — is raised to a unique-in-the-animal-kingdom level of huggability by the dark circles around their eyes, which evoke the sort of cartoon sadness that perhaps only a child’s love could heal. Pandas seem to be crying out for our affection, and for our protection too. And these days, they really need it. Squeezed out of their natural habitat (the overdevelopment of Chinese forests has pushed them further and further up into the mountains), crucially lacking in genetic diversity, pandas, as a species, are now struggling to find their biological place in the future.
It’s only natural that you go into a 3D IMAX movie called “Pandas” wanting to take a bath in fuzzy cuteness. Yet unlike last year’s “Born in China,” a Disney co-production that featured a touching chapter about a panda learning to separate from its mother, this is no Disneyesque bear hug of a movie. It does have its share of “Awww!” moments and dopey-funny music cues (pandas slithering up branches and falling down slides to the tune of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”), along with a spun-sugar narration by Kristen Bell (“He’s the King Kong of cute!”). But then the 45-minute film gets down to the harsh business of survival. It’s built around an attempt, by animal behavioral scientists, to take a panda named Qian Qian, born and raised in captivity, and train her to live in the wild.
It wasn’t so long ago that the headlines from China about two marquee pandas successfully mating were ritually greeted like maternity news out of Buckingham Palace. “Pandas” shows you how that situation has progressed. Much of the movie unfolds at Chengdu Panda Base, a research facility and idyllic preserve in Sichuan province that has now fostered the birth of some 200 pandas. But that won’t solve the problem; it kind of is the problem. Though a handful of Chinese pandas still live in the wild, the panda is increasingly a fragile and precious hothouse species — hermetically born and raised, unable to survive on its own. The movie shows you the steep climb they’re now facing.
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Much of the effectiveness of the Disney school of true-life anthropomorphic nature documentaries, going back to movies like “Beaver Valley” (1950), hinged on the simple fact that they had no human characters to get in the way of our connection to the habits and personalities of the animals onscreen. In “Pandas,” there are several human characters, like Rong Hou, the Chinese scientist who is leading the attempt to train Qian Qian, and Ben Kilham, an independent wildlife biologist, based in New Hampshire, who is known as a kind of bear whisperer. He has successfully taken brown bears born in captivity and introduced them to the wild, and Rong Hou travels to the New England woodlands to study his techniques.
This part of “Pandas” is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t exactly ignite you with storytelling energy. Training bears for the wild turns out to be less fun than simply observing bears in the wild. We’re rooting, of course, for Qian Qian, whose progress (or lack of it) comes to symbolize the future hope for pandas. For a while, she seems to thrive. She learns to climb trees, and to master the activity that pandas do best: sitting around and eating 50 pounds of bamboo a day. (That’s part of why we love them; they’re nature’s couch potatoes.) But then she’s left on her own, and she doesn’t do so well. It’s a transplant that doesn’t take.
Why not? The movie never spells it out, but the audience, right or wrong, can’t help but read the signs in those black-circle eyes. In the woods, it seems that Qian Qian must have been lonely; on some level she rejects what it means to live on her own. “Pandas” is less sentimental than you expect, but you can respect the film’s honesty and still leave it hoping that the next true-life panda adventure delivers more of a feel-good ending — for the audience, and mostly for the pandas.