MPAA Rating: G
USCCB Rating: A-I
Reel Rating: (3 out of 5 reels)
In 1947, Walt Disney had Alfred and Elma Milotte shoot footage of the seals living on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. Some 100,000 feet of footage was edited into a 27-minute documentary titled Seal Island, which proved to be both a surprise commercial and critical success, winning an Oscar in 1949 for “Best Short Subject”. It marked the start of an impressive series of nature documentaries called True-Life Adventures that continued into the 1960s and was even used in public school classrooms across the country.
On the heels of the wildly successful BBC series Planet Earth, Disney rebooted the franchise in 2008 as Disneynature, releasing at least one feature-length documentary every year since. Each of these films highlights a different subject, such as lions, dolphins, or—my personal favorite—flamingos, and is narrated by a famous actor; Disney donates a percent of the profits to a charity that helps the animals in question.
The latest installment is Born in China, which prominently features not one but three species. Dawa is a female snow leopard raising two young cubs. At first, her life seems ideal but soon another female challenges her territory. For the safety of her cubs, she moves to a new area but has trouble navigating the terrain and catching game for her hungry children. Tao Tao is a male golden snubbed-nosed monkey with angsty, teenage issues. Despite still being relatively young, he is pushed out of his family when his mother gives birth to his new baby sister. Out on his own, he join the “lost boys,” a gang of other unwanted males, who cause mischief and live outside normal family units. Last and most important is Mei Mei, a new giant panda cub who lives a solidarity life with her mother. Like Tao Tao, she begins to test her limits as she grows, but her mother seems intent on keeping her grounded—both metaphorically and physically.
During the days of True-Life Adventures, Walt Disney was infamous for manipulating sequences or even deliberating interfering with the animals to make the images stick to his story. Although documentary filmmakers don’t do this today, the personalities and stories in Disneynature movies are largely scripted. Cameramen will spend spend months or even years following their subjects and only create a narrative in post-production. This does not, however, remove truth from the tale. The fact that humans see their own stories in these animals indicates a pattern of eternal archetypes written into nature.
Jesus often used natural imagery to help his audience understand these truths: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Mt 6:26) Thus, it is right to laugh when Tao Tao accidentally loses his footing and falls to the ground or to cry when Dawa gets injured and can’t hunt effectively. The created world and the kingdom of nature are not the Kingdom of Heaven, but can point to it in many ways.
It is this aspect of “looking” and “pointing” that makes Disneynature films so effective in their ability to a cultivate a genuine appreciation of God’s created world. Since the rise of organizations such as PETA and Greenpeace, which sometimes put the needs of animals over humans, the conservation movement has been stigmatized in certain Christian circles. Born in China is not a documentary that overloads its audience with statistics, or even commands any kind of specific action. Instead, it allows the animals to tell their own story simply through observation. “Look at these creatures,” it suggests. “Aren’t they beautiful? Aren’t their lives compelling? Wouldn’t it be a shame if they were not there?” This is a proper understanding of ecology in which God, creation, and humans are seen as being in right relationship with one another, as described in Laudato Si:
Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.
Presenting the beauty, order, and mystery of creation can be an evangelical tool for pointing out how God demonstrates his love for humanity; it suggests how the Creator provides both resources that fill our bodies and beauty that fills our souls. Thus, reckless or wasteful treatment of creation demonstrates a disrespect for the One who gave us the gift.
Barely 80 minutes long and with a simple story, Born in China is not an epic masterpiece. Yet its short length and gentle tone is the perfect way to introduce children to the wonders of the natural world, and even adults will appreciate the gorgeous cinematography. Nearly everyone, regardless of their opinions about climate change, environmentalism, or commercial logging, should enjoy this movie.