If there’s one thing that’s been an issue for the annual Earth Day releases that we see from Disney’s nature documentary division, it’s that they tend to forget they’re dealing with, well, wildlife.
The immersive hi-def footage that the filmmakers have captured in such films as “African Cats” and “Bears” is consistently spectacular. But the series’ insistence on crafting stories with anthropomorphic appeal can make for some moments that strain to fit a template. These particular Disney characters don’t necessarily spring to action on cue, or care whether a scene packs maximum dramatic punch.
It’s a smart move, then, that the franchise’s latest entry, “Born in China,” trains its spotlight on five different remotely located species: pandas, snow leopards, golden snub-nosed monkeys, red-crowned cranes, and Tibetan antelope. (Or, as kids will know them, pretty much the entire cast of “Kung Fu Panda.”) More animals, more material to work with in splicing together the ideal narrative. And really, what sequel isn’t looking to up the ante?
John Krasinski gamely slips into children’s library storyteller mode as the film’s narrator, his wide-eyed delivery easily pictured as he covers an adult panda’s dietary particulars: “Forty. Pounds. Of bamboo. Per day!” No surprise that mother panda Ya Ya and newborn daughter Mei Mei give Krasinski some competition in the star-power department, reminding us with their cuddly lolling and munching why their kind is such an attraction on the zoo circuit. What’s definitely surprising is just how much it takes for a young panda’s tree-climbing impulse to click, as we’re shown through comic backsliding shots and Ya Ya’s “helicopter mom” climb-busting.
Snow leopard Dawa features in the most exotically transportive scenes, as we marvel at seeing the big cat nimbly descend craggy rock faces in pursuit of mountain goats to sustain her two cubs. Her confrontations with rival leopards are not all that the filmmakers apparently hoped for, judging from the narrative massaging these encroachments receive. But parents of little ones take note: We also see shots of Dawa lying perished under a blanket of snow. These images are quietly powerful, and elegantly paired with a coda on cranes and their symbolism in Chinese culture. (Think “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”)
Monkeys end up supplying the movie’s real drama. While parentally overlooked mischief-maker Tao Tao gets up to the requisite, well, monkey business, he’s also witness to a stunning snatch-and-fly attack by an opportunistic goshawk. It might not be nature on demand, but it’s some scene.
BORN IN CHINA
Directed by Lu Chuan. Written by David Fowler. Narrated by John Krasinski. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 79 minutes. G (but, oh, that thorny circle of life).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.