In 2008, Disney inaugurated the Disneynature film label. Its first release was “Earth.” That was followed by five other films starring wildlife: “Oceans,” “African Cats,” “Bears,” “Monkey Kingdom,” and “Chimpanzee.” The newest release is “Born in China,” guided by director Lu Chuan and producer Brian Leith, both of whom have previous success with nature films.
If you ask Americans to name a wild animal from China, most will immediately say the panda. Americans are fortunate to have these endangered animals on loan from China at the San Diego Zoo and the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
A panda is featured in “Born in China” along with other animals native to China, all of which are, unfortunately, on the Endangered Species List. The film’s plot follows the stories of three animal families: panda Ya Ya, a first-time mom to baby girl Mei Mei; snow leopard mother Dawa and her two cubs; and two-year-old Tao Tao, a golden monkey who experiences sibling rivalry when a new baby is born. Interspersed is footage of other animals native to China: the red-crowned crane; the red panda; and the chiru antelope.
“Born in China” takes audiences to remote wilderness areas, giving them extremely rare glimpses of these fascinating animals. To achieve this, cinematographers spent months in five of China’s natural reserves and in the world’s highest mountain range. The assembled footage covers a year, from one spring to the next. Also presented is a full “circle of life” (the phrase, made popular by Disney’s 1994 animated classic “The Lion King,” is used throughout the film) including the death of one of the main animal stars (a note to parents: scenes of death in “Born in China” are tactfully handled).
To capture up-close footage, the crews utilized lightweight equipment and strong lenses to get their shots while respecting the animals’ territory and privacy. When filming pandas Ya Ya and Mei Mei, the filmmakers were required to wear special panda suits that look and smell like the animals. Cinematographer Shane Moore, known for his work with predators, was especially respectful of snow leopard Dawa and her cubs, even retreating at one point because he didn’t want to break the bond of trust he had established.
Cinematographer Justin Maguire and his crew, assigned to film the golden monkeys, found their subjects to be very curious. As audiences will see during the end credits, the monkeys did not hesitate to inspect the cameras. According to Maguire, the crew developed a bond with the monkeys: “We got to know the individuals. We watched them being themselves. I loved it.”
Combined with the visual storytelling is a soundtrack composed by Barnaby Taylor and narration voiced by actor John Krasinski. Taylor was already familiar with Chinese wildlife and music, having won an Emmy for his work on the BBC’s “Wild China” series. Taylor’s score for “Born in China” adds traditional instruments including the Tibetan horn, Mongolian fiddle and Chinese dulcimer to a Western orchestra. Each animal family receives its own musical theme and the results range from emotionally moving to light and amusing.
Visually, “Born in China” is stunning. The footage of the animals and time-lapse photography of both plants and weather are breathtaking. Glimpses of interactions between mothers and their young show, as producer Roy Conli notes, “How animals share certain values that we (humans) hold dear.” From Ya Ya cuddling Mei Mei, to Dawa protecting her territory and her cubs, to Tao Tao acting out pre-teen rebelliousness, the footage and Krasinki’s narration reminds viewers the bonds of family exist for both humans and animals.
But, “Born in China’s” script exhibits one major flaw: nowhere in the film is it mentioned that all the families shown are endangered. This omission seems odd for multiple reasons. First, it is a fact that the panda, snow leopard, chiru, golden monkey and red-crowned crane are endangered. Second, director Lu Chuan has previous success documenting endangered Chinese wildlife. His award-winning 2004 film “Mountain Patrol” highlights the efforts of Tibetan patrols to stop illegal poaching of the chiru antelope. “Mountain Patrol” inspired the Chinese government to establish the Kekexili Reserve to protect the chiru. As a result, their numbers are beginning to grow, demonstrating the power of film to effect change.
So, it is puzzling as to why “Born in China’s” script leaves out the “endangered’ description. What would it have harmed to note during the action, or at the end of the film, that all the animal families shown face habitat destruction and dwindling numbers? After learning this, audience members who relate to “Born in China’s” stories might have been inspired to discover more about these animals and what can be done to help preserve them (for its part, for the first week of the film Disney will be contributing 20cents per “Born in China” ticket sold to World Wildlife Fund). Sadly, that opportunity to directly benefit the film’s animal stars was missed, a flaw in an otherwise rewarding film.