It used to be that IMAX documentaries were synonymous with thrills, danger, and jaw-dropping landscapes. When did they become so darned cuddly?
It seems that ever since 2011’s “Born to Be Wild 3D,” which raked in more than $30 million by shining a global light on orphaned orangutans and elephants, we’ve seen a steady increase in large-format films that exist to put the most lovable wild animals front and center, in part to save them from extinction. Just last month there was “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” And now there is “Pandas: The Journey Home.”
In “Pandas,” directed by Nicolas Brown (“Human Planet”) and narrated by Joely Richardson, we travel to the Wolong National Nature Reserve, in China’s Sichuan province, for a closer look at efforts to breed the black-and-white bears in captivity and release them to repopulate the species, which we’re told has dwindled to fewer than 1,600 worldwide. Pandas eat bamboo (up to 80 pounds per day, per animal), and bamboo isn’t nearly as available as it used to be. Educating the locals to value preservation as much as they do farming is part of the mission here, along with educating you, the filmgoers, of course, though it never feels too strident. While very young moviegoers may be bored at times — this is a National Geographic Entertainment presentation; there’s a fair amount of information to impart — ages 7 and above should find plenty to hold their interest for 40 minutes.
The clear kid highlight: when panda caretakers squeeze the poop out of a burrito-size infant bear by massaging its stomach, as its mother would in the wild. It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, especially for school groups.
Almost as funny: Researchers don goofy-looking panda suits to work with the roly-poly residents of the reserve. Tromping around the forest, these costumed humans look like rejects from a spin-off of David Lynch’s “Rabbits.” When they plant a fake leopard in the forest to test a young bear’s survival reflexes, it’s as close as any animal comes to real peril on camera.
“Pandas” amounts to an expensive National Geographic special that, as television, would constitute high-quality programming. As an IMAX offering, however, it’s visually underwhelming. Much of it takes place close up, in labs and controlled outdoor environments. Broader shots of craggy mountains and lush wilderness are occasionally spectacular; they’re just not enough.
In the lemur movie, the furry stars frolic and dance right off the screen at you. Giant pandas, on the other hand, lumber. In this film they waddle and lie down a lot, because that’s their nature. We love them, but they aren’t exactly an IMAX adventure. They’re simply a rescue project worth applauding.