3 out of 4 stars
Disney has a new star — and he doesn’t even say a word.
His name is Tao Tao and in a split second, he goes from zero to hero when he saves his baby sister from certain — and brutal — death at the hands of a hawk.
Tao Tao is a golden snub-nosed monkey who after feeling rejected by his mom and dad after the birth of his baby sister, leaves his family to hang out with other rejected monkeys, known as “lost boys.” But when Tao Tao realizes nothing is more important than family, it’s too late. His parents want nothing to do with him — until he saves his sister from the talons of the golden monkeys’ primary predator.
Tao Tao’s heroism is the highlight of Born in China, a 79-minute Disneynature documentary about three different animals — golden monkeys, snow leopards and pandas — and their relations with their families and environments. The film, which is narrated by John Krasinski, takes the audience on a trip throughout China’s sun-kissed mountains and woodlands that these animals call home.
The beauty of director’s Lu Chuan’s Born in China is he lets Mother Nature take center stage. The movie’s cinematography is spectacular and serves as the perfect backdrop for the monkeys, leopards and pandas. Though they occupy different parts of the country, there stories are connected and follow the simple rules of nature’s primal hierarchy: kill or be killed and to sustain life, life must be taken.
Like all Disneynature films, which include Bears and African Cats and Monkey Kingdom, Born in China lets the animals carry the entire film; there are no humans.
Chuan brilliantly follows each of these animals — Tao Tao, Dawa the snow leopard and Ya Ya the panda — during all four seasons to show how they survive and care for their young.
The audience learns to love Tao Tao when he shows his true character by risking his life to save his sister. Parents and kids can relate to Ya Ya, who spends much of her time making sure her cub, Mei Mei, stays out of trouble and has plenty of bamboo to eat.
But the audience also sympathizes with Dawa. Initially, Dawa is a terrific mother, killing sheep to feed her and her cubs. She even stands her ground when a rival leopard enters her territory. But Dawa’s reign atop the food chain is short-lived. When the rival returns, she’s joined by her three adult sons. They stalk Dawa, like sharks circling a dolphin. Dawa tries to fight, but she hurts her paw on jagged rocks, forcing her to retreat.
And then it gets worse.
Slowed by injury and desperate for food, Dawa tries to attack a baby yak, but as she bites its neck, the yak’s mother stomps Dawa and gores her with her horns. Dawa is broken, probably beyond repair, and it’s left to the audience’s imagination as to what happens to her and her cubs after she fails to provide food yet again.
But that’s what great about Born in China. Disney’s known for producing fairy tale endings, yet in the wild, stronger animals kill weaker ones. It’s just the way it is — so that’s the way it is in this movie.
For Disney, which is known for its fantasy, Born in China is as real as it gets.
Jon Gallo is an award-winning journalist and editor with 18 years experience, including stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and sports editor at The Baltimore Examiner. He’s also an editor for CBSSports.com. He’s crossing his fingers the only baseball team in Baltimore that will contend for a title this summer won’t be his fantasy squad, the Catonsville Cartel. He also believes the government should declare federal holidays in honor of the following: the Round of 64 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; the Friday of the Sweet 16; the Monday after the Super Bowl; and of course, the day after the release of the latest Madden NFL video game.