Disneynature’s ‘Born in China’ is irresistibly cute, heartwarming tribute to majesty of wildlife

"Born in China" | Disneynature
Grade: B+

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Disneynature’s newest film commemorates Earth Day, which is April 22, by bringing nature to the movies and giving back to nature from the movies. A portion of the sales from the opening week of “Born in China” will help contribute to the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to benefit giant pandas and snow leopards, allowing audiences to engage with conservation initiatives at a local level as they learn more about these species from the stunning documentary. Director Lu Chuan fashions a fascinating and heartwarming film that will particularly appeal to young audiences with its educational and engaging storytelling — not to mention a plethora of overwhelmingly adorable images of baby monkeys, pandas and leopards. Narrated by John Krasinski (“The Office”), “Born in China” offers numerous moments of lighthearted fun and moving drama that showcase the profound magnificence of the country’s wildlife.

“Born in China” encompasses three primary storylines, each an intimate portrayal of a different species: Dawa is a snow leopard, a powerful, protective mother who does everything in her capacity to provide for her children; Tao Tao is a young, adventurous golden monkey who is struggling for the attention of his parents after the birth of his baby sister; giant panda Ya Ya cares for her young cub, Mei Mei, who is just beginning to venture out and get a taste of freedom on her own terms.

The only thing stringing these separate narratives together is the general premise that they take place somewhere in the vast mountainous regions of western China. Thus, as a whole, the structure falls flat due to a lack of continuity. Each individual story, however, is thoroughly engaging and delicately and uniquely navigates themes of family and the natural circle of life.

But of course, this is Disney. For all of its naturalistic and factual narration, “Born in China” stumbles under its parent company’s penchant for anthropomorphism, which, at points, feels exceedingly contrived. The script wavers between informing and philosophizing, often trying too hard to show that the stories reflect human life; the animals are given names by the filmmakers and are characterized by individual personality traits. Krasinski’s constantly-amazed style of narration, while sincere and suitable for young viewers, reaches a point of irritability. The tone of the film borders on sappy when Krasinski recites the line “Nothing compares to being loved by the ones you love most” over an image of Dowa snuggled with her leopard cubs.

Despite its obvious sentimentality, “Born in China” is as rich a cinematic experience as they come. The film is visually stunning. Its cinematography captures both the majesty of China’s expansive wildlife habitats and the raw allure of their smallest elements. While the film opens with grand images of clouds rolling across a mountainous landscape, the camera frequently lingers on the most delicate of details, such as colorful leaves gliding down a stream. In addition, the phenomenal work by wildlife cinematographers builds a personal connection between the audience and the animals, capturing the intimate relationship between Ya Ya and Mei Mei as aptly as it captures an intense skirmish among two older males in a group of golden monkeys. Audiences should definitely stay for the terrific credits sequence, which puts the camera crew’s impressive work (waiting for hours for storms to pass or maneuvering equipment that has become a toy for nearby monkeys) on full display. Viewers are invited to become a part of the film’s world, and are allowed to fully experience its natural splendor on all scales.

Along with such powerful images, sound plays a vital role in making the audience feel as if they are a part of “Born in China.” The exquisite score by Emmy-award winning composer Barnaby Taylor is at times light and playful, and at others bold and emotionally rousing. Jazz music plays over shots of monkeys hopping around in the snow and the dramatic crescendo of strings accompanies a goshawk swooping in to catch its primate prey. Sharp sound production adds to the score’s mesmerizing effect; from the thunderous strides of Tibetan antelope flooding across the rocks of the plateau, to the heart-tugging squeals of baby Mei Mei, to the gentlest crinkling of leaves in the grass, the film maintains a powerful sensory impact on its audience.

This sense of cinematic immersion makes “Born in China” a marvelously educational and enchanting movie for younger crowds, and its crisp length (just under 90 minutes) and spectacular audiovisual storytelling make it a perfectly watchable documentary for adults as well. Although flawed, it serves as a poignant exploration of family relationships in the wild and offers plenty of heartfelt messages — and adorable baby panda images — for viewers to walk away with.

“Born in China” opens today at Shattuck Cinemas.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].