Born in China

Pretty picture

If the Academy Award winners were based on cuteness, Born in China would be the runaway winner for best picture, and Mei Mei the baby panda would pretty much win every other category. The latest Earth Day release from Disneynature revels in the cuteness factor of its baby panda, snow leopards, and golden snub-nosed monkeys as they learn to live and survive in the vast China ecosystem. But cuteness only goes so far in life. People eventually yearn for substance, and that bodes true for Born in China. As with its Earth Day documentary predecessors, Disney sacrifices story in favor of fluff, or in this case, fluffiness.

It is still worth watching for the stunning cinematography and rare glimpses of certain animals.

Born in China tries to focus on three families: snow leopard Dawa and her two cubs; two-year-old golden monkey Tao Tao and his family; and Mei Mei and her mother. The movie toggles equally between family to family, but only the story of Dawa and her cubs holds together with strong narrative and rising action. Raising two babies at 14,000 feet elevation, with territorial enemies and a scarcity of food, makes for good, natural storytelling. Dawa’s story also does the best job thematically, teaching young viewers about the life cycle.

Where Dawa’s story feels natural, Tao Tao’s story seems overly Disney-fied. Thanks to Disneynature’s usual cheeky narration (this time from John Krasinski from The Office), the film overly anthropomorphizes Tao Tao, projecting on him feelings of jealousy toward his baby sister as well as his parents treating him as an outsider. Krasinski tells us how Tao Tao is feeling, but all the viewers really see is a playful monkey learning how to become an adult.

Mei Mei’s story isn’t really a story at all. She struggles to learn to climb trees and becomes a clumsy—albeit cute—fur ball as she rolls down a hill while trying to maintain her balance. Meanwhile, her mother, as all pandas do, spends her day eating 40 pounds of bamboo. Pandas, cute as they are, do not exactly do much. Mei Mei’s story, or lack thereof, is more forgivable than the contrived Tao Tao narrative. The panda footage offers a reprieve from the more intense snow leopard storyline and evokes “aww” noises from the audience. And hey, if I had hundreds of hours of panda footage, I would use it too.

Having access to a fairly unknown terrain and backed by a Disney budget, the filmmakers faced a difficult task of perhaps having too much material from which to find focus. Dawa’s story, while compelling, only takes up 20 or so minutes of the film. In addition to the three competing story lines, the film tries to weave in transitional scenes of cranes and chiru, also known as Tibetan antelope. Watching a chiru born in the wild and seeing it walk 30 minutes later makes for great footage, and learning about what cranes symbolize in Chinese culture is interesting. Neither one, however, added any focus to the story.

While the movie ultimately falls short as a coherent story, it is still worth watching for the stunning cinematography and rare glimpses of certain animals. Thanks to amazing access to vast, remote parts of the country, Born in China is a visual buffet of mountains, forests, and fur. If it’s showing on a future flight, consider not paying for headphones and watching someone else’s screen. Without narration, you’ll still get the cuteness and the scenery, and that’s where Born in China is at its best.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.