"Born in China" is the latest installment in the Disneynature documentary series. It's "Planet Earth" aimed at younger audiences, but any nature lover can find enjoyment here, especially in the stunning cinematography.
While other installments have focused on specific species and ecosystems, "Born in China," directed by Lu Chuan, gets up close and personal with species unique to China — pandas, snow leopards, cranes, Chiru antelope and golden monkeys. Chuan's team follows these incredible animals across the seasons and throughout the circle of life while incorporating Chinese spiritual beliefs about life and death.
John Krasinski narrates, and though he doesn't achieve that mix of gravitas and cheeky wit that Sir David Attenborough brought to the classic nature series "Life on Earth" and "Planet Earth" his 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. A few outtakes during the credits offer a look inside the production process, which involves both stationary hidden cameras attached to rocks and the like, as well as production crews trekking into the wilderness in pursuit of images. The small taste of behind-the-scenes information is so fascinating that you almost want to watch an entire documentary just about this process.
The drama captured in "Born in China" 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 by creative filmmakers 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, and 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 man-made 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 personal call to action to protect these animals, and that feels like a missed opportunity.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
'Born in China'
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing: In general release