Disney Nature has been turning out quite the impressive slate of documentaries over the last couple of years, but this one is the weakest of the last few, though it’s still quite good. As opposed to just following a couple of animals, this one follows a variety of animals native to China. The film ends up focusing specifically on three animals & their mothers, though there are sections devoted to other animals like cranes and Tibetan antelopes. Some of them work better than others. The affably goofy panda cub and her longsuffering mother provide the most kid-friendly and silly scenes and there’s almost no narrative drive there. In a rather interesting twist, the section on the golden monkeys focuses, not on a newborn, but on a young monkey who is driven out of his family unit when he is essentially replaced by a new baby; there’s a certain amount of social commentary there, but this section is the one that rings, at times, kind of false in terms of the narrative and emotions the filmmakers lay onto it. At one point, something happens to a young monkey in the group and the narrator, a not particularly effective John Krasinski, remarks in serious tones that our main monkey character has just had “his world turned upside down.” Right. Sure. The best section focuses on a mother snow-leopard and her two new cubs. The footage throughout the film is quite beautiful, but the snow-leopard scenes are where it just really goes to the next level. The mountains are rendered incredibly beautifully. The film has some really great sequences, mostly in the leopard sections. There’s a deeply painful section where the mother snow-leopard has been injured and is still trying to hunt that is really gut-wrenching. And the film ends up taking a turn I found quite surprising by having one of the main stories have a distinctly unhappy ending. There’s an amazing shot, one of the most arresting of the film, where the camera simply pans around the natural environment and then ends up lingering on the, kind of a spoiler I guess, dead body of one of our main characters. It’s bracing and shocking in a really great way. But the film ends up musing on the cycle of life; animals, the film ends up saying in the closing, quite beautiful moments, are born in China & of necessity, they also die there. The death is disturbing and is meant to be, but I don’t think the film will leave a kid traumatized; it handles death just right, I think, by not sanitizing it or pretending it doesn’t exist, but by lingering on it and the sadness of it but then also placing it in the larger context of the natural process of life where it’s less terrifying. Anyway, the film as a whole is still quite good; the natural footage is pretty great all the way through, parts of the movie are incredibly effective and breathtaking, and the film only occasionally rings annoyingly false. This isn’t as good as these documentaries have been in the past, but it’s also one of the most ambitious projects, so I can forgive it to a degree. It’s still a beautiful meditation on nature and the natural rhythms of life outside of the human hustle and bustle; that’s always valuable. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – nature doc sometimes feels annoyingly false & sentimental, but the footage is breathtaking and the cycle of life & death of these fascinating animals is undeniably compelling. 3 ½ stars.