Film Review: Born in China, A Visually Stunning Tour of Animals in the Chinese Countryside

Photograph courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Like most of the DisneyNature films released once a year around Earth Day, there isn’t much to say about them beyond the fact that they are visually stunning efforts in capturing nature in all its perilous beauty. I’m not always a big fan of the way these movies attempt to make naturally occurring events seem like plotted stories, complete with names for some of the primary “character” animals and an explanation of what we’re seeing provided by a narrator—John Krasinski, in the case of this year’s effort, Born in China—that puts thoughts in the heads of its subjects that are more human than animal. Even still, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the sweeping scope and jaw-dropping beauty of what director Chuan Lu (who normally helms more action-oriented works, such as Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe and City of Life and Death) and his patient team of camera operators have captured this time around. Born in China focus on three different animals families, living in three vastly dissimilar areas in the Chinese wilderness. The most dramatic telling is that of a mother snow leopard and her two adorable cubs, living in one of the harshest environments in the country, both in terms of terrain and weather. Although we are privileged to see the mother hunt for food, when she moves in for the kill, it’s always a bloodless affair. And in one surprisingly brutal sequences, the prey fights back unexpectedly and wounds the mother leopard badly. Photograph courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Believe it or not, even the segment on the rather silly-looking golden snub-nosed monkey is steeped in drama, as the baby monkeys must avoid being snatched by giant hawks (spoiler alert: not all of them are so lucky). But the two-year-old monkey that is the centerpiece of that section of the film is supposed being pushed out by his parents when a baby sister arrives, leaving him to hang out with “The Lost Boys,” whom we’re told are other young, unsupervised monkeys. How the filmmakers would know this is beyond me, but eventually our hero returns to the fold in time to hopefully keep a tragedy from happening. Amid fleeting footage of cranes and other four-legged creatures, the final segment centers on a panda bear mother and her baby, who is in the early stages of straying from her protection to explore the world around him. I’ll admit that other than them being cute and eating a lot of bamboo, I don’t remember much in the way of compelling footage of the pandas, but it’s not like you can’t have them featuring in a film about wildlife in China. The DisneyNature series has certainly had more sweeping portraits of a region than Born in China. That being said, in two of the three segments, actual startling death is presented in ways I don’t remember seeing in other installments, and it makes a world of difference into understanding the reality of these animals’ lives. They’re still fairly sanitized, but the danger is real and believably tragic. As always, stick around for the end credits as we glimpse footage of Lu and his team working tirelessly to capture a moment, as well as animals getting a bit too familiar with the equipment filming them. I genuinely look forward to each new DisneyNature work, and they work so far ahead that they’ve already announced that the subject of next year’s film will be dolphins. If nothing else, it’s going to look incredible.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.