Movie Review - Born in China

The movie opens with narration citing the "circle of life" but despite being a Disney film, that narration isn't necessarily echoing the iconic, Oscar-nominated song from The Lion King (1994). It is perhaps echoing the idea in Buddhism of birth and death being connected in cycles that keep going back-and-forth or round-and-round. Director Lu Chuan keeps that idea as this vague and nebulous thing. It's meant to be simple, safe and cute, easily digestible for children, and not interested in the mechanics of how birth and death actually occur in the wild.

There are five animals that are spotlighted as the subject of this documentary. Those animals are cranes, snow leopards, golden snub-nosed monkeys, giant pandas and Tibetan antelope, known as chiru. Like with narratives that juggle multiple characters in an ensemble, some get more focus than others. Some get short shrift. In this movie, the animals that draw the short stick are the chiru and the cranes. In fact, the life cycle of cranes is all but abandoned.

Instead, the cranes are used as nothing but a metaphor. Just as storks are identified as the deliverers of babies, cranes are identified as the carriers of departed souls. It seems unfair that these birds are limited to how Chinese culture views them, as opposed to the other animals who get a fairly, objective view of what they are as just beings outside of human sensibilities.

It's not that I need a distinct line drawn between scientist and storyteller. I'd like there to be a balance between the two roles, which Chuan and by extension his narrator, John Krasinski, have to be. Arguably, Chuan's film leans away from the science aspects for the most part. When it comes to the cranes, those birds are depicted with complete lack of science, if barely depicted at all.

In general, the theme of parenthood is very strong. For the snow leopards and the giant pandas, it's all about what mothers have to do to feed and protect their cubs. Because leopards are predators, the felines grapple with the violence of hunting. Because giant pandas are herbivores, the cuddly bears grapple with detaching from dependence and not just child from parent but the reverse as well.

The chiru aren't as cute and furry as the other animals, so they aren't as approachable. Chuan's cameras and stories also maintain a similar distance. With the chiru, it feels more like scientists are coldly ratting off details about them and their behaviors. As the behind-the-scenes footage reveal, the golden snub-nose monkeys are the opposite. Chuan's cameras literally curl up with the tiny primates and therefore so does the narration.

The monkeys get a Prodigal Son story that is played out. It's not a one-to-one comparison to the Biblical tale, but there are enough parallels. It's a story that isn't totally grafted, but it's a wonder at some points if certain plot-points weren't jazzed up, if not totally invented. A climactic encounter with a goshawk toward the end felt edited in a way to recreate something that cameras missed in its whole or the whole scene could have been fabricated.

The majority of the time we're watching pandas tumbling down a forest hill or out a tree. The baby panda in question is named Mei Mei and she is an adorable fuzzball that is constantly rolling. She is a physical embodiment of the circle of life, but within this movie, the circle of life is incomplete. Chuan's film would have us believe motherhood is something that just happens and babies are beings that just magically appear.

There is a brief scene indicating the mating habits of the chiru. When it comes to the other animals, mating is something that doesn't exist. I'm not asking for depictions of animal intercourse, but particular narration makes snow leopards and pandas out to be such solitary creatures, mainly living alone. Logically, if these animals end up pregnant, they can't be that solitary.

I'm not asking for a scene where we see the leopard kill its prey, but the movie does show it eating a dead animal, as well as it chasing fauna, or baby yaks. It would be disingenuous to talk about an animal needing to hunt and not show those things. The same is true about motherhood and birth and even rebirth. This film is disingenuous about what leads to those things.

Rated G for all audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 16 mins.


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