BMZ Review: China: The Panda Adventure
By Ross Anthony
Because of the three promising keywords comprising its title, the film-goer could rightfully expect to see a large format (LF) film chock full of gorgeous black and white pandas, complemented by the magnificent expanses and beauty of lush China, wrapped in some tantalizing tale of adventure. Unfortunately, only thirty percent of the film attends to these expectations.
In total, LF footage of Pandas accounts for about five to seven minutes of screen time. Though we trek through China for the duration, only perhaps another 5 to 7 minutes of the footage captures the spectacular. That's too bad, having been there myself, I know China has much more to offer in the way of sweeping scenes. In fact, the sheer size of the country and its landscape beg to be filmed in large format. As for the adventure, it's really more of a mild journey with a few contrived spills/wannabe-thrills.
So then, what makes up sixty percent of the picture? Answer: The historical (1936) story of Ruth Harkness retracing the steps of her passed husband while romancing the panda more in concept than the tangible. Not a totally uninteresting premise, but perhaps not one meant for the big movie screen. Gorgeously filmed, expertly lit, and rather impressively acted (for the format), this tale provides nearly no big screen drama and extremely limited big screen "moments."
Of course, a shot of a great panda munching on bamboo will no doubt steal your heart (as it did mine) and start you giggling; unfortunately, such instances are as rare as the panda itself.
Additionally, besides the trek following in the footsteps of so many other "journeys into the wild films," "Panda" also steps into the ugly bear trap of the evil hunter cliche. Worse yet, despite good acting, decent dialogue, and obviously skilled filmmaking, the picture cannot avoid an extended lull (no doubt, the greatest sin in a big movie). Such flaws could and should have been identified and eliminated in the scripting stage. Audiences do not go to LF films for the acting. We can tolerate a small percentage of "talking heads," but we are there for the sensory!
How else could "Panda" have been improved? Suggestion: Drop the history lesson. The tale hog-ties the filmmakers, preventing them from showing us what we want to see - sweeping shots of a country that could overload that huge screen with natural beauty. Give us our aerial shots! Why confine the focus to Ruth's linear passage or even to the panda's habitat? Show us China's splendors. There's no need to artificially recreate the stereotypical hunter for us to point fingers at. Show us the panda in the wild in all its glory! That should be enough to win our hearts. Certainly, pandas naturally have that allure, and these are professional filmmakers - I have no doubt they'd have nailed that goal. Then leave the message for preservation for the credit scroll narrative as done in this current version. As is, I find the heavy-handed message artistically inappropriate and to some degree insulting.
One other point of frustration: rather closely tied into the premise is the hypothesis that pandas might actually be tame gentle animals despite their reputation as dangerous beasts. This looming question kept me interested (in a non-large-format kind of way) when all else failed; however the picture never resolves the issue. Yes, we see Ruth rubbing bellies with a cub, but would momma bear be so docile? The film straddles the issue, avoiding a direct answer while seemingly implying anecdotally through pictures that pandas won't maul anyone. (Perhaps a gentle animal is an easier one to protect?) Further clouding comes from the press kit itself, revealing that the two cubs were actually raised in captivity.
All in all, "China: the Panda Adventure" recreates a simplified tale fit for TV, shows off a pawful of sweet pandas and offers up a tiny tea cup-sized serving of truly memorable China pans. Unfortunately, an experienced crew of professionals finds themselves bound by a script that should have never been approved for the large screen.
Interesting facts from the production notes:
Compin: "When pandas are born they are tiny, and weigh about 3 1/2 ounces. They are occasionally born in pairs but in the wild the mother would only raise one. In the Wolong Reserve's captive breeding program they take one baby away and share the rearing with the mother panda. They actually alternate the babies so each gets a week with the mother and a week with the breeders."
Horton: "The two baby pandas that we cast in our film were raised this way... half by the mother half by people. We didn't know that at two months the handlers remove both babies from the mother completely. The two babies that we filmed lived together and played together, but they hadn't seen their mother again until she was brought to us for filming. The handlers related to us later that they weren't sure how the mother would respond to seeing both babies brought back together, but she seemed just as thrilled as the handlers were surprised. So those scenes in the film where the twins are climbing all over their mother are actually from that real reunion."
Starring Maria Bello, Xander Berkeley, Xia Yu.
Directed by Robert M. Young.
Written by John Wilcox, Jeanne Rosenberg.
DP: Reed Smoot.
Produced by Antoine Compin and Charis Horton at World Wildlife Fund/Trane(C)2001.
Copyright (C) 2001.
Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com
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