Born in China (The Walt Disney Company, G)

The Disney “circle of life” approach is valuable because it gives children a way to relate the natural world to their own lives.

Who can resist a cute animal? Just about nobody, it seems, which explains the proliferation of pet videos on social media. For the professional version of the genre, we have Disney (or, to be precise, Disneynature), which reliably cranks out beautifully filmed nature documentaries that seldom fail to please. They please, that is, as long as you are OK with the conventions that guide this type of documentary, the most obvious being the relentless imposition of humanlike story lines that may or may not be useful in understanding the animal behaviors displayed on screen.

The latest offering from Disneynature, Born in China, does not depart from the Disney playbook. It features five types of animals, with pandas (of course), snow leopards, and golden snub-nosed monkeys getting the most screen time; chiru (antelopes) and cranes are also featured on a somewhat lesser basis. As always, the cinematography is stunning and takes you to parts of the world you probably will never see in person (in this case, the woodlands and mountains of China, far from the cities most tourists visit). And in case the opportunity to observe these animals in their native habitat is not sufficient for you, Born in China includes a narration (by John Krasinski, aka Jim Halpert on The Office) that interprets the animals’ behaviors in human terms.

Born in China follows the species through the cycle of seasons, taking us along as they migrate, mate, and give birth; hunt and defend their territory; and, above all, care for their young. Disney knows on which side their bread is buttered, and there’s nothing like a baby panda being cradled by its mother to make an audience go “Awww.” Unless, of course, it’s two baby snow leopards play-fighting, or a just-born antelope trying out its legs for the first time, or a monkey saving his baby sister from a would-be predator…you get the idea. Nature as packaged by Disney is more benign than red in tooth and claw, an understandable choice given the large family and scholastic audience for these films.

It’s easy to criticize Born in China for anthropomorphizing wild animals, and Disney’s approach is certainly not one that any wildlife professional or serious student would adopt when communicating with peers. When it comes to capturing the interest of children, however, the Disney “circle of life” approach is valuable because it gives them a way to relate the natural world to their own lives. Some of those children may well take a serious interest in science and nature as a result, and if so, they’ll have no problem setting aside the Disney approach in favor of more rigorous methods of study.

Born in China is rather improbably directed by Chuan Lu, best known for the harrowing 2009 feature film City of Life and Death. He’s operating in a much more family-friendly manner in Born in China, his first documentary, and sticks closely to the Disney playbook. If you go to see this movie, it’s definitely worth staying for the credits, which include the animal equivalent of outtakes, as well as some good-natured war stories by cameramen relating the difficulties they encountered while filming. | Sarah Boslaugh

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