"Born in China" is the latest installment in the "Disneynature" documentary series. It's "Planet Earth" aimed at younger audiences, but any nature lovers can find enjoyment here, especially in the stunning cinematography. While other installments have focused on specific species and eco-systems, "Born in China," directed by Lu Chuan, gets up close and personal with some of the unique species found in China — pandas, snow leopards, cranes, Chiru antelope and golden monkeys. Chuan's team follows these incredible animals through the seasons and throughout the circle of life while incorporating Chinese spiritual beliefs about life and death.
John Krasinski does his best Sir David Attenborough as the narrator of "Born in China," though he doesn't achieve that singular mix of gravitas and cheeky wit that the "Life" and "Planet Earth" legend brings to those classic nature documentaries. Krasinski's vocal stylings are perfectly homey and serviceable for the task of guiding us through the lives of these special animals.
The footage captured is breathtaking for its access and intimacy to these incredible creatures. A few outtakes during the credits offer a look inside the production process, which involves both stationary secret cameras attached to rocks and the like, as well as production crews trekking out into the wilderness to capture images. The small taste of behind-the-scenes information is so fascinating that you'd almost want to watch an entire documentary just about this process.
The drama captured is remarkable, from a territorial snow leopard standoff to the first steps of a baby panda and the antics of a group of young golden monkeys — though it's clear that some of these interactions have been coaxed together by creative editors for maximum narrative enjoyment. The editors weave stories worthy of any Disney classic — Tao Tao the golden monkey is shunned by his family after the arrival of his baby sister, but his peers, the Lost Boys, don't offer much solace either. Dawa the snow leopard hunts ferociously to provide for her cubs, but is it enough? Ya Ya the panda carefully guides her baby, Mei Mei, through the process of growing up.
As deliciously cute and cuddly as Mei Mei and Ya Ya are, the breakout stars are definitely the golden monkeys. These curious creatures sport bright marigold fur and bluish-gray faces with huge expressive eyes. Their expressions and gestures are startlingly human, and there's plenty of interpersonal and group drama to sustain their storyline, as Tao Tao leaves the family fold and returns after saving his baby sister from a hawk.
The Disneynature films are always released close to Earth Day and strive to educate audiences about the importance of preserving nature. A message before the screening announced that seeing the film opening weekend would help raise funds for saving these animals. But as a nature film, "Born in China" stays resolutely within the confines of its region and topic. From watching the film, one wouldn't know if these animals were endangered or threatened by manmade development, predators or climate change. The message stays firmly on spiritual questions about the circle of life, but doesn't educate or leave the audience with a call to action about how to personally act to protect these animals, and that feels like a missed opportunity.
"Born in China" — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1:16