Nature documentaries divide pretty clearly into two camps. First, there are those that seek to educate while they entertain, exposing the audience to creatures and locations they might not otherwise have known about. The second, however, is much more akin to watching cute animal videos on YouTube, only with extremely high production values and with animals you might not otherwise be accustomed to. Disneynature’s Born in China falls firmly into that second camp, even if it uses the exotic Chinese landscape to paint the illusion of teaching its audience. Then again, considering how young an audience this film seems to aim for, maybe there is some educational value in simply seeing these creatures in their natural habitat.
Through the structure of a four season narrative we see a year in the lives of four different animal groups, each of which are personified with character arcs and names. We see a mother snow leopard struggle to keep her territory and find food for her young cubs, a mother panda learn to accept the growing independence of her cub, a monkey learn the importance of family over hedonistic friendship, and some antelope…. They don’t get a story; they’re just cute.
The footage taken is all gorgeous, and if the reel during the credits is to be believed, the pain staking effort that these camera people went through to get this footage was worth it. Everything comes across crisp and clear, and a variety of angles and compositions make sure we never get bored. And, of course, all the animals are appreciably adorable, especially the panda cub, whose fumbling curiosity is easily the film’s highlight.
If only the narration would shut up long enough to let one absorb what they’re watching. John Krasinski does a good job with the wealth of narrative material he’s given, and it is interesting to see how director Chuan Lu melds Disney’s family-friendly ethos with a distinctly Chinese emphasis on the values of devaluing and sacrificing the self for the betterment of others. But the narration is so constant that it quickly becomes grating, particularly because it often states the obvious and almost never has anything informative to say.
Still, if you have young kids, this is something they’re likely to get a big kick out of, especially when it inevitably hits Netflix in a few months. If your entertainment goals are little more than to see cute animals on a big screen, Born in China will meet that need. Just don’t expect to get much more from the experience than some fuzzy feelings that will quickly evaporate after the credits.