The latest from Disneynature is a huge disappointment.
Disney’s current run of nature documentaries has never been known for its originality. The first release from Disneynature, itself a brand begun to seize the sort of success seen with March of the Penguins, was cobbled from footage shot for the UK series Planet Earth. And ever since it’s been mostly cute animal tales with simple narratives affixed to beautifully shot clips, edited to produce a wholesome, somewhat anthropomorphized story. But they hadn’t ever been dull, in spite of their sameness. Some of them, like Chimpanzee, are absolutely stunning films that can be quite tolerable with the hokey celebrity narration muted. Sadly, Born in China is a total bore and the first major disappointment of the studio’s specialty imprint.
The film consists of four separate observed Chinese locales and the dominant mammals residing there. The main attraction, of course, are the pandas in their bamboo forest, but there are also golden snub-nosed monkeys, snow leopards, and Tibetan antelopes (aka chiru). We also meet the crane and learn of its valkyrie-like significance to Chinese mythology, but only at the front and back ends of the doc, which follows a year-cycle structure, spring to spring. It’s too bad they’re not more prominent, as their fabled role is more interesting than anything in the others’ sections. Those involve nothing but the standard predator and prey, mother and child, and male rivalry arcs that we’ve seen over and over in these films.
To escape mundanity in spite of its presenting the naturally common, Born in China gives the animal characters names like “Mei Mei,” who is a young panda living alongside his mother, “Ya Ya.” Theirs and the main snub-nosed monkey’s story are made to be coming-of-age tales. The antelope bits showcase their females’ migration away from the males as they go to birth calves and then return. A leopard mother protects her cubs during territory battles while trying to feed them by hunting unimportant, non-personalized goats and yaks. She’s an empathetic predator, while the hawk that snatches away left-alone baby snub-nosed monkeys is villainized. For all the forced color of the storytelling, the animals’ lives become even more trite.
As narrator, John Krasinski helps none, for the better or the worse. His lines are informative but never unique, and while sometimes written to be playful, they always sound like they’re read from a script, as if Krasinski is doing delivering copy for another Esurance commercial. Speaking of which, no actors who are voiceover spokespersons for ads should ever be tapped for documentary narration, unless the idea is to make the doc seem like an ad itself (and, sure, many do have that intention). But Krasinski’s tone is also one we associate with droll cynicism, thanks to his inescapable part on TV’s The Office, not what you want for the voice-of-god role of a film meant to celebrate its subjects. He sounds enthused but passionless.
Turning the sound off on this one only reveals the film’s other shortcomings, unfortunately. Director Lu Chuan (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol) just doesn’t have the eye for anything more than the rudimentary, so the film lacks the kind of spectacular and contextual environmental flair seen in the Disneynature films by regulars Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, and Keith Scholey. With the amount of nature programming available both on the big screen and on TV these days, these docs are supposed to be something special. But there’s just not anything extraordinary about the content in Born in China. Sure, the baby pandas, monkeys, and cubs will delight small children. So do YouTube videos of the same animals. It’s not enough.
And surprisingly there is little in the way of distinguishing the film in terms of its titular regional setting. Nothing to connect these stories in a meaningful thematic way that gives reason for this one nation’s animals, those confined to its borders, to be in the spotlight together, and yet apart. Obviously the location and title were chosen just to appeal to the Chinese market — though there is no way that that audience is any more tolerant of bland cinema than the rest of the world.