“Born in China” is the latest installment in the “Disneynature” documentary series. It’s “Planet Earth” aimed at younger audiences, but any nature lovers can find enjoyment, especially in the stunning cinematography. While other installments have focused on specific species and eco-systems, “Born in China,” directed by Lu Chuan, gets up close and personal with some of the unique species found in China — pandas, snow leopards, cranes, Chiru antelope and golden monkeys. Chuan’s team follows these incredible animals through the seasons and throughout the circle of life while incorporating Chinese spiritual beliefs about life and death.
John Krasinski does his best Sir David Attenborough as the narrator of “Born in China,” though he doesn’t achieve that singular mix of gravitas and cheeky wit that the “Life” and “Planet Earth” legend brings to those classic nature documentaries. Krasinski’s vocal stylings are perfectly homey and serviceable for the task of guiding us through the lives of these special animals.
The footage captured is breathtaking for its access and intimacy to these incredible creatures. A few outtakes during the credits offer a look inside the production process, which involves both stationary secret cameras attached to rocks and the like, as well as production crews trekking out into the wilderness to capture images. The small taste of behind-the-scenes information is so fascinating that you’d almost want to watch an entire documentary just about this process.
The drama captured is remarkable, from a territorial snow leopard standoff to the first steps of a baby panda and the antics of a group of young golden monkeys — though it’s clear that some of these interactions have been coaxed together by creative editors for maximum narrative enjoyment. The editors weave stories worthy of any Disney classic — Tao Tao the golden monkey is shunned by his family after the arrival of his baby sister, but his peers, the Lost Boys, don’t offer much solace either. Dawa the snow leopard hunts ferociously to provide for her cubs, but is it enough? Ya Ya the panda carefully guides her baby, Mei Mei, through the process of growing up.
As a nature film, “Born in China” stays resolutely within the confines of its region and topic, and provides no information about whether these animals were endangered or threatened by development, predators or climate change.
Despite its Earth Day release, it doesn’t educate about how to help protect these animals, and that feels like a missed opportunity.