Nature lovers will think of giant pandas when they think about China and Disneynature’s annual Earth Day offering includes our favorite black and white “bear,” but also a curious 2-year-old golden snub-nosed monkey, a mother snow leopard and her two cubs and a herd of Tibetan antelope (chiru). Gorgeously shot, “Born in China” brings humor to these true-life stories of hardship. While there is death, the incidents are tastefully and discretely edited with minimal horror and gore, making this good family fare for children of all ages.
Director Lu Chuan have previously focused on the chiru in his 2004 “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol,” a movie about how Tibetans battle poachers to protect these antelope. That movie went on to win a special jury prize from the Tokyo International Film Festival, and received both Best Feature Film and Best Cinematography at the Golden Horse Awards.
Narrated by John Kransinski (“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” NBC’s “The Office,” and Amazon’s “Jack Ryan”), the documentary is divided up into seasons, beginning with spring. Red-crowned cranes are seen briefly in both the beginning and the end (Zhalong wetlands and Yancheng coastal wetlands) with more detailed shots featured during the end as the credits roll. The Chinese landscape is lushly green as the camera swoops from a birds eye view before landing in a bamboo forest where the audience meets a mother giant panda, Ya Ya, in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province.
The 2014 census found only 1,874 pandas living in the wild. Ya Ya is a first-time mother and she’s a dotes on her cub but she must eat 40 pounds of bamboo a day to keep up her energy while watching her increasingly independent cub. Red panda fans won’t be entirely disappointed. A red panda does stop by to check out Ya Ya’s baby.
Giant pandas live relatively solitary lives, but in the Hubei Shennongjia Forest near the Yangtze River, the golden snub-nosed monkeys live in groups. The females in the troop often fight over the babies, sharing motherly duties, but here the film focuses in on a two-year-old male, Tao Tao. Now that his mother has a new baby, he’s no longer the center of attention and the film explores how he deals with his sudden displacement. That’s a dilemma to which certainly many first-borns and even middle children can relate.
Footage of the elusive snow leopard mother, Dawa, in the Qinghai province, on the northeast rim of the Tibetan, is something of a treat. Only about 4,000 snow leopards are left in Central Asia’s mountains. The climate and the scarcity of food in the bitter cold make Dawa’s life harsh. The documentary does show Dawa’s successful hunts, but not the actual moment of the kill. Dawa also must contend with intruders challenging her for territory.
As one might expect of Lu Chuan, he not only caught the rarely filmed snow leopard, he also spent time following the chiru, located in the Kekexili National Nature Reserve. To give birth, the female chiru leave the majestically horned males and migrate in large numbers, but they must defend themselves against wolves.
The credits are both charming and instructional. The audience gets to see just how close the photographers got to some of the animals and how much patience and fortitude are required for the snow leopard shoot.
Moviegoers who see “Born in China” during its opening week (April 21-27, 2017) will benefit the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Based on opening-week attendance, Disneynature will make a contribution to the WWF to help protect wild pandas and snow leopards.