Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
By now, Disneynature - with its yearly film installments that are part nature documentary and part-kid friendly entertainment starring adorable animals - has manifested its product not only into a formula but into another brand under the Disney empire itself. It's a brand that involves donating opening weekend proceeds to wildlife preservation companies while throwing audiences into a new and often never-before-seen environment brimful with interesting animals to anthropomorphize.
The most surprising thing about these films, for myself at least, is after seeing three Disneynature documentaries - Bears, Monkey Kingdom, and now Born in China - is how much I've liked each one. I liked Born in China enough to say it's the best of all three. These are films that are easy for one in which to lose themselves, even if only for about seventy-five minutes, and an opportunity for viewers to take note at the importance of photography and cinematography, two of the many words I like to overuse in my reviews. This transcends a lot of the manufactured sentimentality and embellished attempts to sometimes literally humanize these animals rather than leaving them as they are.
The scope of Born in China has been enlarged as has the character-count. As opposed to focusing on one or two animals, we are treated to seeing five different species commonly found in the wilderness of China with the wraparound idea of the circle of life being carried out in a land where death and the food-chain are always present in some form. Opening and concluding the film are the metaphorical cranes, who are said to carry spirits over to the next life whenever they take flight in a majestic manner that looks just as awe-inspiring if it's shown in slow-motion or as in the speed it actually occurred.
Born in China
John Krasinski, Xun Zhou
21 April 2017
Steve's Grade: B-
Born in China is apparently the first time baby snow leopards are captured on-camera, and the two we see in the film belong to a mother leopard named Dawa, who climbs rocky terrain in order to camouflage for protection and scout sheep for her hungry cubs. Far away from that hostile environment is the isolated mother-panda Ya Ya, who nurtures her young baby Mei Mei until she's ready to take on a similar life as his mother. In a more frigid, unpredictable climate, a snub-nosed monkey named Tao-Tao has a difficult time coping with the birth of his baby sister, who has snatched all of his parents' attention in the meantime. Disillusioned and lonely, Tao-Tao decides to run with a group of golden monkeys billed as "the Lost Boys," a gang of mischievous troublemakers that give Tao-Tao a momentary sense of belonging.
Lastly, there are the chiru, also known as the Tibetan antelope, that are defined as a unit rather than individual characters. They have lengthy, stick-like legs that make standing still difficult but effortlessly lend themselves to long stretches of running and galloping. Antelope exist as a collective bunch when it comes to hunting, child-rearing, and cooperating, which makes sense why the film's writers never goes on to define them uniquely. That must have required some commendable restraint on behalf of the writers.
The common-thread amongst all these stories is the importance of family, sometimes to the point where it seems that any kind of deviation or frustrations regarding exclusion felt by one character are petty and insignificant when compared to the larger needs of the collective. You see this with poor Tao-Tao, whose rejection understandably prompts desire to go his own way, something that Ya Ya is actively trying to encourage with Mei Mei. The contrasts are apparent and they make for a more complete and broader film that still manages to do the creatures and their respective habitats justice even within such a short timeframe.
Narrated by John Krasinski, beautifully directed by Lu Chuan, and with cinematography by an extremely careful, talented quintet, Born in China is familiar but favorable for the Disneynature brand. Its desire to widen the scope of a particular country and showcase some of its most beautiful creatures feels more different enough to succeed and not as reliant on one set of "characters" to try and sustain an entire motion picture. The typical shortcomings are present; any hope of Disney mentioning the environmental issues China has had with preserving wildlife is predictably absent from even a mention and Krasinski's attempts at evoking emotion or humor, just like in The Hollars, ignite little else besides soft cringes. Born in China is visually immaculate and narratively touching. We can leave it at that.