BMZ Review: China: The Panda Adventure
By Herb Lash
China: The Panda Adventure
Written by: Herb Lash
Source: Big Movie Zone
Date: October 2001
Pandas in the wild, a stunning Chinese wilderness, a real life heroic female personality, danger and intrigue - on paper CHINA, THE PANDA ADVENTURE would seem a promising candidate for the still experimental field that is the Large Format drama. The design is clear, but the movie is less than successful. Cuddly pandas will appeal to children, good old-fashioned drama will appeal to adults, Chinese vistas will appeal to the nature lover and a credit sequence featuring panda facts will appeal to museum curators - but when it's all sewn together the final product is as unlovely as Frankenstein.
In 1936, New York fashion designer Ruth Harkness set out for Shanghai to see what had become of her ill-fated adventurer/hunter husband. All that remains of her beloved is his ashes and a diary detailing his quest for the elusive and believed to be dangerous wild pandas of western China. Kind and brave Shanghai native Quentin agrees to help Ruth succeed where her husband failed - together they will find the mystical/mythical panda creature. But cold around the heart hunter Dakar Johnson is also intent on finding the pandas, to kill a few and bring back pelts. What ensues is a race up the Yangtze River, a trek through treacherous mountain terrain, a traipse across a lethal rope bridge and a brush or two with corrupt Chinese soldiers. Ruth is triumphant in her expedition to find the pandas - but her victory comes at no small price.
The syrupy, slow opening and character introductions set a sleepy tone that seems likely to lose the younger members of the audience - kids waiting for the pandas to romp across the screen. The dramatic elements here are about on par with a daytime soap opera - slightly enlivened by the exotic setting. Relief is the overwhelming sensation when the film steers away from drama and ventures into the great outdoors. Large Format enthusiasts will recognize the familiar travelogue style - lush valleys, running rapids and wide-open vistas. These shots are enjoyable, but hardly enough to carry the film. Ruth reads her husband's diary accounts of panda behavior and these readings allow us to leave the drama in order to spend a bit of time in the company of the rollicking, adorable pandas. Again, relief is the primary sensation, a brief respite from the tedious dramatic storyline.
There are a few positives that should not be over-looked. The much talked about IMAX problem of synchronizing dialogue to picture is nicely overcome here. The filmmakers do not resort to the hiding of speaking faces with odd camera angles or other gimmicky maneuvers. Also, there is a scene featuring a Chinese mask dancer that is truly magical - he, along with some captivating Chinese non-actor extras steal the film. The filmmakers here should be lauded for at least trying - but out there, somewhere, the first good dramatic Big Movie is still waiting to be made.
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