Born in China, released on Earth Day, is a nature documentary following the lives of three animal families: a panda and her cub, a snow leopard and her two cubs, and a juvenile golden monkey outcast by his family. Although the documentary is a Disney co-production, nature’s nastier details aren’t entirely glossed over.
Framed by a Chinese legend that states that storks carry life and death as they travel the skies, Born in China offers a barebones plot. The true star is the beauty of China’s majestic nature sights, including the snowy mountainous home of the snow leopards, the bamboo forest of the pandas and the tree canopy of the monkeys. The editing, slyly done to keep the nastier side of nature mostly out of the documentary, is very carefully crafted to ensure that there is a whole lot of anthropomorphism, especially in combination with the voice-over narration by actor John Krasinski. In one segment, when the young monkey saves his baby sister from being killed by a hawk, the narrator states that the monkey “…felt like a hero.” Through careful editing, the segment provides point-of-view shots of the monkey as he sees the hawk swooping down to make a kill.
With all of the cute treatment of the animals, it’s easy to state that Born in China treats its subjects as adorably as March of the Penguins treats its subject animals. It does, but only to a point. There are shots of the snow leopard carrying prey to her cubs. And two monkeys brutally fighting. And hawks and wolves attempting to kill prey. But the graphic details of the actual hunt are always left on the editing room floor, perhaps a concession to “Disnefy” the documentary.
But as the film goes through a full year in the animals’ lives, it becomes clear that one of the animal families won’t have a happy ending. The family’s sad plight is in plain sight, and it’s sad to think what will happen to the young ones. But it is luckily almost immediately followed by the beautiful bookend allegory of storks carrying life and death. And that allegory would have been a poetic and haunting one if it hadn’t been directly followed by the film’s ending credits, which depict, as the credits roll, behind-the-scenes footage of the filmmakers in action. So here’s this beautiful story about storks carrying life followed by monkeys exploring the camera operator’s tote bag. It’s a shame the behind-the-scenes shots are included, because it took away from the heartfelt message the film was attempting to convey. And who wouldn’t want to be moved by a thoughtful nature documentary? I for one do.