Film Review: Born in China

Crowd-pleasing pandas, snow leopards and snub-nosed monkeys dominate this documentary designed to balance appealing to young viewers while presenting an accurate portrait of animal life.
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Structured by the progress of the seasons, Born in China showcases shaggy yaks, elegant cranes, capering chiru (small antelope), adorable pandas (adorable, that is, until you catch a glimpse of their wicked claws) and formidable snow leopards, whose startling cuteness should serve as a reminder that if your kitty weighed 70+ pounds, you'd be dinner.

Born in China is proof that echoes of 1967's shamelessly anthropomorphized Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar are still part of Disney's DNA; the featured animals are given names and natural instincts—to protect cubs and calves, to find safety in numbers, to engage in play that's less about fun than honing muscles and survival skills—and presented in human terms so children can relate to them. But its presentation is tempered by more authentic forthrightness about the law of fang and claw: Cute little critters get eaten, apex predators are bested, baby animals do adorable things but neglect to learn the lessons of survival at their peril and must heed the calls to eat and breed or die trying. The film's narration, delivered by John Krasinski (“The Office”) in cheerful, circle-of-life terms, first introduces a female snow leopard literally clawing out territory on a harsh and yes, snowy, mountainside where she will bear and raise two cubs, a situation made more difficult by the encroachment of a second leopard equally attracted to the same hunting ground. A second narrative follows an adolescent snub-nosed monkey as he navigates the transition from his birth family to establishing one of his own; he joins a roving group of other maturing males dubbed, "the lost boys," a la Peter Pan.

A panda teaches her youngster to swim, climb and forage for bamboo—yes, a clumsy panda slipping and rolling down a hill is about as cute as it gets—and pregnant chiru abandon their mates (their "boyfriends," as the narration has it) to undertake an arduous migration so they can raise their offspring in relative safety until they're old enough to literally run for their lives. Like goat kids, the young chiru are mesmerizing, capering and gamboling as though they were mounted on springs, and their segment emphasizes the adaptive value of living in herds—individually the small females and their young are vulnerable to predators like wolves, but there's safety in numbers.

Born in China is gorgeously photographed and showcases an impressive variety of landscapes, from forests to broad plains and rocky mountains; the seasonal transitions are linked by flocks of graceful red-crowned cranes, which loom large in traditional Chinese art. While parents of especially sensitive children should be forewarned that the snow leopard narrative doesn't end happily, it's no harsher than most educational television programs and less bloody than many. Children who've made it through Mufasa's death in Disney's The Lion King without being traumatized should be fine here.

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