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"BORN IN CHINA"
(2017) (Documentary) (G)


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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: Four separate tales of survival in the wilds of modern-day China are told involving pandas, monkeys, snow leopards, and antelopes (or "chiru").
PLOT:
The film follows four animal "families" as they survive one calendar year in the wilds of modern-day China. Dawa is a snow leopard trying to raise two cubs in the colder, higher elevations of the country. But her hunting ground is threatened by an intruder, who eventually gangs up on her with her three grown leopard sons. As the snow and ice get deeper and thicker, Dawa has to secure a viable prey soon or risk death.

Meanwhile, in a warmer part of China, a group of "chiru" or antelopes survive as a herd, and we see the young ones recently born attempting to walk and then run for the first time. But they are threatened by wolves, who stay on the fringes and challenge the herd to stay together and keep their strength in numbers. Meanwhile, a large panda named Ya Ya raises her cub, Mei Mei, in a distant bamboo forest. Ya Ya's biggest dilemma is when to allow her cub to climb trees and fulfill her destiny of eventually leaving one day to forge a life of her own.

Finally, we follow an adolescent monkey named Tau Tau, who is having a tough time adjusting to his newborn baby sister who is suddenly taking up all of his mother and father's attention. He starts hanging out with the "wrong crowd," a band of rogue monkeys nicknamed the "Lost Boys" and led by Rooster who live only for mischief and play but have no loyalties. As winter approaches and the predatory hawks above get more daring, Tau Tau must try and get back in his father's good graces.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
How much you enjoy the new Disneynature documentary, "Born in China," may depend on how much you are able to tolerate people around you crying out "Awwwwww!" every three or four minutes at the sight of an impossibly adorable panda cub, twin leopard cubs, a baby monkey, and a newborn antelope. If you have a high threshold for such open-heartedness, you'll love this film. If the very thought of that kind of movie-theater behavior makes your lower extremities clench in dread, but you have to take the family, might I suggest a cocktail or happy pill just prior to the lights going down. Just eat something before and after, OK?

"Born in China" is a beautifully photographed doc that does its G-rated job -- of getting parents and their kids to give a darn about nature -- efficiently and effectively. It might as well be set to an a cappella chorus of Elton John's "Circle of Life" for 80 minutes because it's all about the birth-life-death-rebirth cycle of God's creatures set across four seasons in a calendar year. Oh yes. There is a bit of death that your little ones should be prepared for. Disney has been making animal snuff films for decades starting with "Bambi" on through to "Finding Nemo." It's not the "Rogue One" of nature films, by any stretch. But there is one notable passing that gives the film some much-needed weight and substance in the end

We follow four separate animal "families." One is a super-cute panda mom named Ya Ya and her newborn daughter, Mei Mei. Their story is the most innocuous. They basically just climb trees and eat bamboo, and Ya Ya fears her little one growing up. The second is a herd of "chiru," or antelopes, with babies learning to walk and run for the first time and stick close to the herd with predatory wolves nearby.

The third is Dawa, a spectacular snow leopard who tends to her two cubs and is threatened by a rival leopard and her three sons who want to claim Dawa's hunting grounds. Finally, we have Tau Tau, an adolescent monkey who is jealous of his newborn baby sister and seeks to rebel by running away from home (er, sort of) and joining a rogue pack of monkeys the filmmakers nickname the "Lost Boys," who have no loyalty or family ties whatsoever.

The storytelling here is solid. The film is split into four seasons a la the recent "Gilmore Girls" Netflix series. So, even if you're bored with it, you have a built-in clock to let you know how far it has to go. But I don't think most people who pay to see "Born in China" will be bored. The editing between the four storylines keeps the overall narrative flowing. Sure, the film falls into the usual nature doc rhythm of the calm narrator instructing the viewer to: "Observe these Chinese monkeys. They live only to play in the tall treetops of this exotic Far East jungle." Cue the foreboding music. "But there are predators in those treetops..."

Or, "Behold the beautiful chiru, known in other cultures as the antelope. See the first hesitant walk of the young. Delight as that walk turns into a prance, then a run." Cue the foreboding music. "They better run for there are wolves watching ... always watching for the young to stray from the herd..."

But this format still works. And the editing is such that the filmmakers have managed to craft a believable beginning, middle, and end. Sure, I think they cheated on a couple of occasions to goose up the danger. The predatory hawk doesn't really seem to be THAT close to one vulnerable monkey near the end. But they got enough shots of the bird swooping through the trees in a menacing fashion that they could intercut with the cute, lonesome primate looking concerned into the camera to create doubt. It's kind of like on "Survivor" when one contestant says something like, "I'm voting that guy out at the next tribal council. He's a SNAKE!" Then cut to some snake slithering on a log that's supposedly nearby, but there's no way.

At any rate, if you do see "Born in China," see it on the biggest screen in your area. The Chinese landscape is just gorgeous to behold blown up that big. And the best part of these Disney documentaries is always the end credits when they show the human crew on location trying to get the best shots. My favorite moment is when the director looks into camera and whisper-screams with child-like glee, "We're tracking the snow leopard stalking a sheep RIGHT NOW! It doesn't get any better than this!" Hee hee. I guess we're all predators and prey, huh? I give this a 6 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed April 18, 2017 / Posted April 21, 2017


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