If you’ve seen one of the other nine films from Disneynature, Born in China’s form will be instantly familiar, as it has a famous voice (here John Krasinski’s) spouting exposition for an overtly narrativized story of different animal families (cranes, pandas, monkeys, antelopes, and leopards) united by shared morals and some lighthearted hijinks. The only noticeable difference is that this film is directed by the well-regarded Chinese director Lu Chuan, as opposed to the nature documentarians Alastair Forthgill and Mark Linfield, who’ve handled every other Disneynature film over the last decade.
Lu is the first auteur hired for this project since Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, and unfortunately he doesn’t manage the same cinematic grandeur, or the organic beauty, that they did with 2009’s Oceans. Instead, Lu joins the ranks of filmmakers whose stamp has been all but diminished by the commercially accessible standards of a Disney product. This is yet another Disneynature film that seems to contradict itself in a simultaneous emphasis on ravishing images and a refusal to let the footage tell its own story.
Born in China is neatly organized around not only the changing of the seasons, but a Disney-branded “circle of life” ethos, threaded by imagery of cranes; in Chinese mythology, the birds are said to carry a soul from its death to its reincarnation. The majority of the film splits its time evenly between different families of snow leopards, golden monkeys, and giant pandas, and in each explores the dynamic between alternately curious, mischievous, and helpless young and the parents that strive for their best interests.
There are moments here that remind us of what should be all too obvious in a nature documentary: that the subjects we’re observing are wild animals, ones whose priorities and behavioral patterns are actually a great deal different from our own. But too much of Born in China falls into the usual pattern for Disney, which is to turn any subject into an extension of the most normative idea of family and domesticity. The few Chinese signifiers here even betray an effort to understand the culture that is this film’s namesake, instead offering stereotypical references to kung-fu, lip service to Buddhist ideologies, and Krasinski mangling the pronunciation of “Szechuan.”
It’s condescending to a child’s intelligence to expect that their interest in animals should be limited by the degree to which they’re humanized, or that they can only understand another culture through its most familiar aspects, and increasingly it feels as if this is the limitation of Disneynature and Disney in general. But even the hackneyed stories imposed on this footage can’t entirely devalue the footage itself, and Born in China boasts not only some truly impressive access to snow leopard habitats, but also the rare glimpse of a giant panda mother raising her cub in the wild. The end-credits sequence finally feels like the removal of a falsifying filter, as outtakes involving the filmmakers interactions directly with their subjects instantly and excitingly create the understanding of a mutual fascination.