Disney guilty of panda-ring in visually dazzling doc 'Born in China'

Pandas, monkeys, snow leopards, cranes – we could go on about the animals in Disney’s visually spectacular documentary Born in China, but the record of human preferences indicates Disney had you at “pandas.” 

Preferably pandas with two alliterative names. Woo Woo, Wang Wang, Doo Doo, doesn’t matter. The centerpiece selections in Born in China – an hour or so of dazzling footage shot in that country's remote forests and mountain ranges – are Ya Ya and Mei Mei, mother and daughter pandas. The patient mother watches as her roly-poly cub learns to navigate the forest, making adorable missteps, tumbling down a hill – she does everything except get her head stuck in a jar of honey. 

Born in China starts in spring and follows their adventures (also monkeys and leopards and antelopes) for a year, organizing itself around cycles of nature that complement the familiar Disney circle-of-life theme, by now part of the corporate brand, but essential and necessary for the story at hand. 

Certainly it accounts for the movie’s grim components – a family of snow leopards chased from their home range by a stronger clan, forced to endure a harsh winter without access to familiar hunting grounds, a episode that ends harshly for the displaced mother, desperate to feed her cubs. 

I give Born in China credit for following the episode to its authentic conclusion – elsewhere the footage has been arranged to fit narratives of heroism and sacrifice that conform, suspiciously, to the demands of human storytelling. 

Storytelling tilted heavily to preteens. Born in China goes overboard here to reach a kiddie audience – every animal gets a cute name, their antics are often scored to jaunty music, and John Krasinski provides the sugary narration – “all she wants,” he says of a mother panda, “is to smother this baby with love.” 

OK, but we’re informed during Born in China she also eats 40 pounds of bamboo a day, so your statement is at odds with the facts as presented. 

For adults, the best way to watch Born in China would be with the sound turned off, not an option in theaters, where the movie arrives just in time for Earth Day, ready to provide  a wholesome and reasonably entertaining family outing. 

But if panda parents are entitled to 40 pounds of bamboo, we should be entitled to an appropriate ration of something natural – a nice hoppy, craft beer would make Born in China fly by. 


Born in China

Directed by Lu Chuan. With Xun Zhou, John Krasinski. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 16 minutes.

Parent's guide: G ().