Hey, look, pandas! That’s the marketing message behind Disneynature’s Born in China, which has a trailer so stuffed with images of cute and fuzzy animals your insulin levels may rise to coma-inducing levels. Don’t be fooled. Even though the movie is a Disney production, that doesn’t mean it’s one extended, cute fur baby YouTube video.
Instead, the film is far closer to Nat Geo turf, and while there are some select cutaways early in the film (we may see a deer dragged around, but we don’t watch it being killed), there is no compunction by the filmmakers to prettify the harsh reality of wild animal life — or to tack on a happy ending.
Narated by John Krasinski (NBC’s The Office), the movie follows those aforementioned pandas but also a golden snub-nosed monkey and a snow leopard. While all are beautiful and can probably be purchased in toy form (though that snub-nosed monkey is a little too skull-faced for my liking), only the pandas seem to have an easy life.
The mama panda bear’s only real stressor is dealing with her baby’s persistent quest to grow up and get out of the house, making the panda baby the cutest version of a sulky teenager ever. We learn that pandas are solitary creatures — so after the baby hits the road, Mom will be alone, eating bamboo and sighing a lot. Sadly, she can’t even watch mindless television to make the time pass.
Life is harder for that two-year-old monkey, who is largely abandoned by his family once a new baby arrives. His hero’s journey is from sulky teenager (pay attention, Baby Panda!) to prodigal son, and it’s the storyline most faithful to the Disney tradition.
But then, there’s the snow leopard.
The story of the snow leopard is one that’s rife with complications, especially for viewers. The mother snow leopard us raising her two cubs in a mountainous region of the country — and by raising, I mean killing other adorable animals. The documentary manages to find a balance that doesn’t shy away from the snow leopard’s need to be a predator, but doesn’t wag it in our faces, either.
What may come as a surprise to viewers (especially viewers with small kids who may not have gotten The Talk about death) is that it isn’t a happy ending for every creature they meet — even creatures to whom they’ve become attached.
This is where the cranes come in — along with a dollop of Far Eastern religious doctrine.
Directed by Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan, the film fully embraces theories about reincarnation and the circle of life (the cranes serve the dual purpose of being beautiful to watch and moving metaphors). This is a longer part of the movie than you might expect, with Krasinski explaining that death really isn’t the end as we watch the cranes fly through the air, ostensibly picking up departed souls on the way.
As beautiful as these scenes are, they may be hard for parents who’ve just muddled through explaining Jesus and the Easter Bunny to their little kids to sort out. Parents should distract the little ones with a piece of leftover Easter candy and tell them to keep their eyes on the screen.
With the exception of a few startling images (yes, that’s the snow leopard’s dinner in her mouth, let’s move on, dear), this movie overflows with stunning imagery, artful storytelling, and yes, you might cry a little. But if you can embrace the Buddhist philosphy of the film, even the sad stuff is remarkably uplifting.
Born in China is in theaters April 21.