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'Born in China': Animal Magnetism
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
12:01PM / Friday, April 28, 2017
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One of the key joys of seeing "Born in China," a splendidly picturesque documentary about snow leopard Dawa and her two cubs; Tao Tao, a young snub-nosed monkey; and a giant panda

Ya Ya and her daughter, Mei Mei, was worth listening to the kids in the audience emoting. Normally, I would rail at the ragamuffins' commentary with an agitation worthy of the great W.C. Fields. But this was different. For many of the seemingly delighted and relatively polite tykes, this was their first movie experience. Respect must be paid.

Here was the nascence of what might become a lifelong love of that to which I have attributed everything from a zeal for adventure to the development of romantic ideals and the building of democratic principles. Funny, though, and possibly part of the film's instruction, is how some children don't laugh or fret exactly where you would. Probably future Republicans, huh? Oh well, it's all good. And anyway, they're all cute when they're little. So I listened for their reactions, and graded the quality of parental responses.

More difficult in my survey, however, was trying to figure how one child, in particular, was reacting to the trials, tribulations and absolute joys of life in the stunningly majestic landscape where director Chuan Lu set his nature study. Having benefit of neither time machine nor hypnotic trance, I wondered what the 5-year-old in me would have thought.

Surely I would have liked the anthropomorphic values assigned to the animal families studied.

Heck, at 7, I was convinced that my dog Taffy, a mutt version of "The Thin Man's" Asta, knew much more about the world and life in general than I did. The only reason he didn't talk back was that it would be too dangerous for me to know what he knew, sort of like prematurely biting the apple of knowledge. In this respect, to weave what is essentially a tutorial on the cycle of life, director Chu fashions his wild animals emotionally accessible.

Painting his narrative across the Western expanse of China, from frigid mountains where the snow leopard's only predator is the harsh weather and rocky terrain, to the bamboo forest where Mama Panda eats 40 pounds of shoots a day, he sings a paean to the motherly instinct. Save for the case of the coming-of-age monkey Tao Tao, whose dad sternly judges him by his deeds, it's all about mom's unconditional love. With no mention of either Mr. Panda or Mr. Leopard, I speculated how that sat with my young, fellow filmgoers.

Of course, adults must be politely skeptical of the narrative chronicled by John Krasinski. While we appreciate the process by which this tale of the wild is made graspable to budding minds via a fictionalized, storybook presentation, I shivered at the thought of how many hours of filming in freezing climes it took to amass enough footage to spin the tale. But I bought in, and soon found myself worried that Dawa wouldn't find enough food, that Tao Tao might not successfully emerge from his rebellious stage, and that Mei Mei might try to grow up too fast.

Otherwise, adult minds are sure to contemplate the rather bold message that forms the filmmaker's subtext. While sugarcoated through travelogue-like beauteousness and the animals' cute, quirky behavior, this is essentially Junior's primer on the survival of the fittest. While one scene depicting a mother Tibetan antelope's defense of her calf against a very hungry leopard with her own little mouths to feed is minimally graphic, the severe reality of the food chain won't be lost on Isabella and Liam.

Peppered with suggestions that can be construed as the indestructibility of matter if you're from these parts, or reincarnation for those of a more Eastern bent, this colorfully philosophic survey on the facts of life and death might not be grokked by offspring under five. However, if you're the sort that feels audiences benefit from the inconsolable cries of tots who would have preferred to stay home and smear makeup on babysitter Sandra's face, one can only hope the pretty pictures preclude an international incident.

As for those kids between 10 and 12 forced to tag along, they'll have to say it was corny no matter what. All of which leads us to that big question: to accompany Max and Meghan or relegate to Pop-Pop and Nanny this chapter in your child's motion picture education? I'll make no judgment. But if you do decide to accept this mission, Dear Parent, odds are that, in a variation of what Dr. Dolittle garnered by talking to the animals, you will learn something not only from "Born in China," but more importantly, by listening to what your moppet thinks of it.

"Born in China," rated G, is a Walt Disney Company release directed by Chuan Lu and features the narration of John Krasinski. Running time: 79 minutes

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