Every year (or nearly every year), Disney releases a documentary about animals under their Disneynature imprint. These always hit theaters in April, timed to coincide with Earth Day. As an effort to raise and maintain global awareness of conservation issues and general interest in the natural world, it’s a commendable project. It’s just too bad these movies tend to stink. Lu Chuan’s Born in China is no exception.
Unlike past Disneynature efforts like African Cats and Bears (and presumably next year’s Dolphins), Born in China does not focus on one species. Instead, as the title suggests, it covers a large region and hops back and forth through the stories of several animals from China. Most of the runtime is spent on pandas, monkeys and snow leopards with occasional appearances by cranes and chiru. The latter is also known as the Tibetan antelope and manages a surprise win in the category of cutest baby against a field of tough competition. Chiru calves, it turns out, can walk within half an hour of birth. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can walk straight or do so at all for very long without falling over, though.
When I say that Born in China tells the stories of these animals, I didn’t intend the word in a vague sense. Lu isn’t giving us overviews of the habits and lifespans of these animals. No, in the style that seems to have become necessary for Disneynature, the film is edited into actual narratives. The cooing, grating narration by John Krasinski repeatedly tells us what the animals want and how they feel. These constructs, for all we know, are invented from whole cloth and come across as cheap ploys to make the audience ooh and aww. At one point, Krasinski says of a young primate, “Maybe TaoTao is finally learning the true value of family.” Yeah or maybe he’s just a freaking monkey.
It’s possible that I’m being unfair. After all, Born in China is clearly aimed at a quite young audience. Even if it weren’t for Krasinski’s cutesy voices, that much would be obvious from the film’s reliance on panda buttocks and funny monkey walks for comedy. Still, plenty of ostensibly child-targeted cinema can be good. How much of a bummer is it to find out a movie you loved as a kid is actually lame?
To Lu’s credit, though, he doesn’t spare his audience, no matter their age, from the harsher realities of life in nature. Animals (I have a hard time not calling them “characters”) will die over the course of the film, even the cute ones. Lu doesn’t need an externally imposed storyline to manufacture pathos when we’re watching a wounded leopard bleed out in the snow.
That heaviness, though, only makes the bowdlerized false cheer of the rest of the story more jarring in comparison. Barnaby Taylor’s sappy, on-the-nose score doesn’t help. One cringes at how literally he takes the Chinese setting; the flutes and plucked strings sound like a facsimile of a facsimile of a stereotype. At one point, after a cute baby mishap, Krasinski clucks, “Oh my gosh, this is so embarrassing!” You’re telling me, man.