Rated G. Running Time: 1 hour 16 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex 1; Nudity 2
Our star rating (1-5): 4
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.
The film focuses upon 3 animal species.
(c) Walt Disney
It is appropriate that the Disney people engage Chinese director Lu Chuan to helm this beautiful nature film, most of which was shot in the China highlands. We start with glorious shots of the legendary cranes in the lowlands, but quickly move to heights of 8,000 & 14,000 feet to explore the lives of a family of golden snub-nosed monkeys and pandas at the lower level, and of a snow leopard mother and her two cubs and their antelope prey at the highest altitude. The photography is astonishingly beautiful, from the long shots of mist flowing across the tree-lined mountains to the extreme close-ups of the animals, their expressive faces filling the screen at times.
John Krasinski serves as narrator, the script following the usual Disney practice of imposing human thoughts and motivations upon the animal scenes, all carefully edited to make a story arc. This practice, so abhorred by nature purists, is probably necessary to keep its intended audience of youngsters tuned in for 80 minutes, but it will make many adults squirm a bit. Not only are the various animals given names, but the narrator claims to know their thoughts, especially of the members of the monkey family. After the brother named TaoTao saves his little sister from being snatched away by a large goshawk, Krasinski says, “Maybe TaoTao is finally learning the true value of family…He’s certainly a hero in his sister’s eyes,”
Along with the story about the little monkey thrust aside when his little sister is born (and joining a group of other single males until he is at last welcomed back into the family fold), the film jumps back and forth between two other species, a panda and her cub, and a snow leopard and her two babies. The stories are organized around the passage of the four seasons—and also the concept from The Lion King “The Circle of Life.”
There is much humor in the monkey story—we see the outcasts playing a game in the trees by plunging down and breaking branches that cushion their fall—and more of poignant drama in the panda story and even tragedy in the snow leopard episode. Ya and her adorable cub Mei spend their days munching on bamboo leaves and shoots, the mother eating up to 40 pounds a day. Her goals are conflicted in that she wants to protect and keep her cub close at hand, and she must teach the fearful little creature how to climb tall trees for food and protection. As the seasons pass, Mei Mei increases in size and skill in climbing, until the sad day in which the offspring must go off alone to find her own territory, leaving her mother to live alone again. (I wondered why the filmmakers did not show us her meeting up again with a male. Because they didn’t have the footage, or a reluctance to interject sex into a film aimed at a young audience?)
Dawa the snow leopard is a first-time mother raising her two cubs alone. She must bring down one of the near-by antelopes if the three are to survive. At one time she successfully defends her territory against an intruder, but when it returns with two grown offspring, she and her cubs must move out of their cave. When she injures her paw, her hunting days are over, especially when she is badly injured by the horns of an antelope mother defending her baby against Dawa. The shots of Dawa lying on the snow-covered ground with blood oozing out from her side and paw, as well as of the two cubs back at their lair awaiting her return, are truly moving. The narrator does not go into their fate, but the adults in the audience, perhaps recalling the tragedy of Bambi’s mother, will have no doubt as to what it is. As we watch the young antelope walking away beside its mother, we learn a harsh lesson in Nature, that one creature’s success can be another’s tragedy.
We must commend the Disney people for including this tragedy, even though they do try to soften it at the end with talk about the circle of life and the legend that the cranes carry a soul from death to reincarnation. It is also commendable that Disney releases its nature films to coincide with Earth Day, helping parents bring to their children a deeper appreciation of the natural world and our stewardship to care for the Earth. Despite its flaws, this is a fine film to bring children to see and discuss.
This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.