Disneynature’s ‘Born in China’ offers stunning images of pandas, monkeys and antelope in their natural habitats

The gorgeously shot “Born in China,” Disneynature’s annual Earth Day offering, includes not only our favorite black and white “bear,” but also a curious 2-year-old golden monkey, a mother snow leopard and her two cubs, and a herd of Tibetan antelope, or chiru. 

The film brings a touch of humor to some otherwise difficult true stories of life and death, with potential unsettling scenes tastefully and discreetly edited with minimal horror and gore, making this fine family fare for children of all ages.

Director Lu Chuan won a special jury prize from the Tokyo International Film Festival and received both Best Feature Film and Best Cinematography awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards for 2004’s “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol,”  focusing on how Tibetans battle poachers to protect chiru.

In this film, narrated by John Krasinski (NBC’s “The Office,” and Amazon’s “Jack Ryan”), scenes are separated by seasons, beginning in spring. Red-crowned cranes of the Zhalong wetlands and Yancheng coastal wetlands are seen briefly in both the beginning and end, with more detailed shots featured as the final credits roll.

Leaving the cranes, Chuan’s camera takes to the sky, providing scenes of China’s stunning green and lush landscapes from a bird’s eye view before landing in a bamboo forest. Here the audience meets a giant panda mother named Ya Ya in the Wolong National Nature Reserve of Sichuan Province.

A census in 2014 found only 1,874 pandas living in the wild. Ya Ya, a first-time mother, tries to consume 40 pounds of bamboo a day to keep up her energy while watching over her increasingly independent cub. Fans of also rare but not related red pandas (with a population estimated at less than 10,000 due to poaching and habitat loss) won’t be disappointed, with one stopping by to check out Ya Ya’s new arrival.

Giant pandas and red pandas, which more closely resemble raccoons and skunks than bears, lead relatively solitary lives, while in the Hubei Shennongjia Forest near the Yangtze River golden monkeys live in tightly knit units. Females in the noisy group often fight over babies and share motherly duties. Here, in a maelstrom of activity, the film focuses in on a two-year-old male, Tao Tao. His mother also has a new baby, making Tao Tao no longer the center of attention.

The film explores how the youngster deals with his sudden displacement, a dilemma to which certainly many firstborns and even middle children can relate.

Footage of the elusive snow leopard mother, Dawa, in the Qinghai Province, on the northeast rim of Tibet, is truly impressive and something of a treat. Only about 4,000 snow leopards still prowl Central Asia’s mountains. The climate and the scarcity of food in the bitter cold make Dawa’s life harsh. The documentary shows Dawa’s successful hunts but not the actual moment of the kill. Dawa also must contend with intruders challenging her for territory.

As one might expect, Chuan not only catches the rarely filmed snow leopard, but he also spends time following the chiru, located in the Kekexili National Nature Reserve. In order to give birth, female chirus leave the majestically horned males and migrate in large numbers, but they must defend themselves against wolves.

The credits are both charming and instructional. The audience gets to see just how close the photographers came to some of the animals and how much patience and fortitude were required for the snow leopard shoot.

“Born in China” opens Friday nationwide. Moviegoers who see the film during its opening week (April 21-27) will be benefitting the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), with Disneynature contributing 20 cents per ticket to WWF through the Disney Conservation Fund, with a minimum guaranteed donation of $100,000. n  Grade: A

Capsule Reviews

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

Stars: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Charlize Theron, Kurt Russell

Length: 136 minutes

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Rating: PG-13

The eighth film in the “Fast and Furious” franchise is also the first to arrive fully without original star Paul Walker as Brian, leaving a key level of humanity out and resulting in mostly mayhem throughout. Loud and frenetic as always, the wheels are starting to come off with  a near total lapse in logic and Charlize Theron is utterly wasted in her role as this edition’s villain, a super-hacker named Cipher. Grade: D

GOING IN STYLE

Stars: Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman

Length: 96 minutes

Directed by: Zach Braff

Rating: PG-13

This remake of the 1979 George Burns/Art Carney heist comedy follows three lifelong friends who suddenly learn that their former employer has ended their pension fund, leading to their robbing the bank that stores the millions. A fun caper with the three Oscar-winning veteran actors displaying sterling chemistry and an underlying reminder that society needs to treat its elderly with compassion.  Grade: B

T2: TRAINSPOTTING

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller

Length: 117 minutes

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Rating: R

Following the misadventures of the four young heroin addicts of the 1997 classic as they face middle age, with Renton returning home from Amsterdam and teaming up with Sick Boy in another attempt to start a brothel only to find Begbie wants violent revenge for his prior double-cross. This tries to recapture the original’s shocking flair but leaves one wishing the gang would grow up. Grade: C

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl

Length: 124 minutes

Directed by: Niki Caro

Rating: PG-13

The true-life story of Antonina Zabinski, who teamed with her husband to smuggle hundreds of Jews through the basement of their residence in the Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Beautifully shot and powerfully perfomed, it’s a strong reminder to care in our current times of refugee crises. Grade: A

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline

Length: 129 minutes

Directed by: Bill Condon

Rating: PG

This spectacular live-action adaptation of the classic cartoon brings stunning musical numbers to life and adds depth and motivation to the characters, who are expertly cast in this enchanting addition to the Disney Princess canon.  Grade: A