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‘Born in China’ review: Disneynature’s entertaining wildlife documentary

The new Disneynature documentary follows a panda, snow leopard and monkey in different regions of China. (Credit: Disney Movie Trailers)

PLOT A close-up look at the lives of a panda, monkey and leopard living in the wilds of China.

RATED G (brief harsh realities)


BOTTOM LINE Heavy on the cute-and-cuddly, but beautifully filmed throughout.

In the new Disneynature documentary “Born in China,” narrator John Krasinski prepares us for “a story of cranes, pandas, antelope, monkeys and leopards.” Is it a coincidence that his list sounds a lot like the cast of “Kung Fu Panda?” Probably not. “Born in China,” more than even previous Disneynature movies, is aimed squarely at capturing the imagination of children.

If you’ve seen the studio’s other films — “Earth,” “Bears,” the excellent “Chimpanzee” — then you know the formula: gorgeous landscapes and breathtaking close-ups of animal activity, threaded together with kid-friendly narratives about family dynamics, peril and survival. “Born in China” quickly narrows its focus to three protagonists: Ya Ya, a burly-cuddly panda mom; Tao Tao, a golden snub-nosed monkey going through something like a preteen phase; and Dawa, a snow leopard whose rippling muscles and patterned pelt make her easily the film’s most mesmerizing creature. (Note to parents: Not every animal lives to see the credits.)

For “Born in China,” Disneynature turned to a Chinese filmmaker, Lu Chuan, who seems slightly more in tune with Disney than with nature. The storylines feel a little forced, and there are many moments of suspect editing. Is little Tao Tao really wearing an expression of sorrow there, or is he just thinking about food? At any rate, it’s difficult to tell how much of any nature documentary is the pure, unaltered truth, and “Born in China” doesn’t appear to have any agenda except to entertain.

Speaking of agendas, “Born in China” steers clear of what is increasingly considered politics — that is, notions of climate change, shrinking habitats (of particular concern to the panda) and other human threats. Depending on your point of view, the absence of these issues might feel refreshing, a nice break from the doomsday prophecies typically heard at zoos and museums. Then again, this is a movie about China — a top-ranked global polluter whose water shortages, desertification and smog-driven “airpocalypse” events could affect us all. Not mentioning any of this — not even a glancing reference — seems like suspect editing indeed. That said, Disneynature deserves credit for bringing China’s natural beauty to American multiplexes, and for donating a portion of opening-week ticket sales to the World Wildlife Fund.

4 more with natural talent

The stars of the new documentary “Born in China” have real animal magnetism. After all, the movie follows the lives of pandas, snow leopards and golden monkeys in China.

If this real-life creature feature sounds appealing, you might also want to check out these other fine nature documentaries.

WINGED MIGRATION (2001) — The flights of migratory birds are captured in all their glory in this stunning, Oscar-nominated documentary that was filmed over a four-year period.

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005) — The search for the perfect mate is no easy task for the Antarctic penguins in this Oscar-winning film that’s also the highest-grossing nature documentary of all time.

EARTH (2007) — This feature-length spinoff of the BBC/Discovery series “Planet Earth” follows the migrations of polar bears, African bush elephants and humpback whales as well as their struggles to survive among changes to their environments.

MONKEY KINGDOM (2015) — A newborn monkey and its mom try to establish their places in the social hierarchy of a group of monkeys who live in the jungles of South Asia. The film was shot primarily in the sacred city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka.


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