"Babies" explores transnational cuteness

Awwww!: Mari, who lives in Tokyo, is one of four babies followed for the first year of their lives in Thomas Balmès' "Babies." The film's three other tiny stars live in Namibia, Mongolia and San Francisco.

The little critters in the nature documentary Babies crawl around in the dirt, play with goats and roosters, lie on their backs, and gaze contentedly at a sun.

They also get strapped into strollers and wheeled off to parenting groups.

Guaranteed to elicit tsunamis of ooohs and awwws from audiences, Babies - the work of director Thomas Balmès and a team of (mostly) French filmmakers - has a cute factor that rockets through the roof and doesn't stop until it hits the moon.

With no narration and just the minimum of information (babies' names, babies' locations), this transcontinental celebration of teeny, tottering humanity is like a National Geographic spread come to life, minus the text, with cheery ambient music to keep things percolating.

Babies follows four newborns over the course of the first year of their lives: Ponijao, who lives in a hut in Namibia with his mother and eight siblings; Bayarjargal, with an older brother and mom and dad, living in a yurt on the wide plains of Mongolia; Mari, the first child of parents in bustling, high-rise Tokyo; and Hattie, the first child of a San Francisco couple.

The film jumps around, from scenes of Ponijao banging stones or nursing at his mother's breast, to the impossibly rosy-cheeked Bayarjargal getting a bath or lazing on a rug, to Mari and her mother navigating teeming Tokyo intersections, to Hattie and Mom and Dad enjoying a picnic at the beach.

Babies is full of magic-hour shots (dawn and dusk casting golden hues) and scenes with its tiny title characters happily commingling with, and occasionally abusing, cats and dogs. (What, these tots aren't adorable enough on their own?!) The film is gorgeous - it was shot with Hi-Def digital cameras - and not anything like the observational documentaries of, say Frederick Wiseman. Rather than being "direct cinema," which attempts to capture truth and reality, Babies is too busy capturing the cute.

Nonetheless, the contrast in lifestyles is striking, and I suppose one of the themes that Babies is trying to get at is that despite chasm-wide economic and societal differences, infants are really all the same: They laugh, they cry, they need food, they poop, they pee. (And that they do, recorded for posterity.)

By showing these vastly divergent parenting styles and domestic situations, Babies can't help but ask whether Western and first-world cultures have gone too far, and become too controlling, when it comes to child rearing.

Ponijao, for instance, appears free to wander hither and yon, sinking his mouth into the mud and pulling on the maw of a big hound, while Hattie is surrounded by learning tools and age-appropriate playthings, never far removed from her parents' doting eyes. Is one happier, or safer, than the other?

But Babies isn't interested in delving into deeper sociological or anthropological issues. It's a glossy flyover, content to zoom in on its wide-eyed and wondering stars and let them have their moment - and occasional tantrum - in the sun.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.


Directed by Thomas Balmès. With Bayarjargal, Hattie, Ponijao, Mari. Distributed by Focus Features.

Parent's guide: PG (for cultural and maternal nudity throughout).