Film Review: Pandas

Hands down the cutest movie of the year.
Specialty Releases

This critic must confess to have never quite fallen under the spell of panda bears. This sentiment was exacerbated by his one trip to China in the 1980s, stuck on a tour bus with a group of bridge-playing, retired biddies on a serious mission, who would beg our driver to stop at every damn tourist gift outpost so they could find their “adorable jade pandas!” I would grit my teeth, bury my nose in the Han Suyin book I was reading and pray for the day to be over.

Consider that negative ursine attitude completely changed now, thanks to Pandas, a 3D IMAX celebration of the creatures that is nothing less than an orgy of furry, chiaroscuric cuteness. The beasts in this documentary by David Douglas and Drew Fellman were simply born for 3D, their overall appealing roundness and fuzzy texture emphasized by the process, and when they come inquisitvely tumbling toward you from their beloved bamboo trees in China, which provide their preferred cuisine (50 pounds of shoots a day), with their big, melting and bandit-masked bright button eyes, you are a goddam goner.

Their irresistible appeal is accentuated by the fact that they are an imperiled species in their native land, due to the overdevelopment of their forest habitats. Much of the film takes place in Chengdu Panda Base, a research facility and preserve in Sichuan province, responsible for the birth of some 200 pandas. The problem facing devoted scientists Rong Hou and Ben Kilham there is how to prepare their sheltered charges for life outside the preserve in their real world. One supposes that such a mission is important in terms of respect for nature and honoring any living creature’s innate authenticity, but it struck me as something of a fool’s errand, as what could possibly prepare them for all the myriad challenges they’ll face? This is proved by the film’s nominal star, Qian Qin, a lovely female panda who is raised in civilization and then released into the wilderness. She is gently scooted out the front gate of the research center, but this doc’s real drama soon emerges when she goes suddenly missing. The scientists track her down and, sure enough, she’s a physical mess, near death, and has to be literally carried back to her former home.

Pandasis only 45 minutes and feels a little thin—more exact information about the species itself, their development and history would have been welcome, especially at the theatre prices charged for the IMAX 3D experience. (The targeted family audiences for this better be well-heeled ones.) I’d have been blissfully content with even 15 more minutes to round it out to a full hour of footage of just these cuties gamboling in the green, climbing trees and taking ooh!-inducing, comic harmless spills, with or without those hokey music choices (like ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”).

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