A recent Born in China trailer suggested it might be a cut above the usual Disney hash (cutesy, sanitized, kid-friendly). It seemed to promise compelling, rough-and-tumble stories about three families in the hills and mountains of southern China — a snow leopard and her two cubs, a mommy panda and her cub, and a snub-nosed monkey clan. So last week I caught a screening in the Disney Animation building, and within five minutes I knew I’d been film-flammed.
Born in China is the same old stew. Stunningly beautiful, drop-dead photography. Adorable animals (especially the monkeys). Folksy-kindly narration (voiced by John Krasinski) aimed at eight year olds. But with much of the sadness, harshness and occasional brutality of nature sidestepped or flat-out ignored. Because the kiddies have to be shielded from the realities. Raise them in McMansions, give them sedentary lives in front of screens, gently poison them with fast-food diets but never let them see what real life is really like. There’s plenty of time for that later. Keep them in fantasyland for as long as possible.
Wells to Disney corporates: YouTube is filled with hundreds of videos of hyenas, wild dogs and lions eating the intestines of still-living zebras, antelopes, gazelles, wildebeests and buffalos. Are you under an impression that kids don’t watch this stuff?
When I was eight and nine I was dying to know what life was really like outside of the suburban membrane my parents raised me in. All I remember about the regimented, rule-following aspects of my life back then was that I was dead bored. My parents shielded me from all the fascinating things happening in the news. Which is why I liked movies so much because at least they offered a taste of life outside the gulag — adventure, color, risk and danger. My childhood was an enforced system of mind and behavior control that all but suffocated my spirit and drained my juices. I died a thousand deaths sitting through Sunday morning services inside our local Episcopalian church.
Thank God for my hunger and curiosity. I was leafing through nudie magazines when I was eight. I remember an older kid shooting a park pigeon with a bow and arrow and soon after getting cuffed by the cops. When I was nine I remember watching a YMCA instructor (I was sent there for swimming lessons and summer recreation) stepping in a pile of gooey dog shit as he was talking to a colleague, and not realizing it and all the kids giggling and elbowing each other. I was busted for shoplifting around then, and I remember begging the supermarket manager not to turn me over to the cops. I was playing touch football one afternoon with friends when I was ten or so, and we all happened to see a major car crash — WHAHM! — less than a block away. We all ran over for a closer look, and one of the drivers, a guy in a convertible, was groaning and moaning as he reclined in the front seat.
When I was three or four I was stunned by the image of a black cocker spaniel puppy that had been flattened into a pancake by a truck, and particularly how his long pink tongue was sticking out — one of the key images of my young life. Around the same age I was taken by the sight of a headless chicken running across a neighbor’s back yard. I remember a five-year-old friend tripping and falling on some broken glass in a graveyard, and suddenly his entire face was bleeding. Each of these experiences told me that life was not a walk in the park or a bowl of cherries. I would have been a lesser, weaker kid without them.
The names of the animals in Born in China sound like they were dreamt up in a Disney boardroom by a specially selected group of Simi Valley parents who drive big fat SUVs — Ya Ya, Mei Mei, Tao Tao. Why didn’t they name the little panda or one of the monkeys Boo Boo?
The most interesting character is a female snow leopard named Dawa. We don’t get to see her catch or eat her prey, of course, but we do see her get kicked out of her territory by rival leopards, and then see her hurt her paw and then suffer a mortal wound during a hunting attempt. Do we find out what happens to her cubs when she passes on? Of course not — this is a Disney film.
Serious respect for Born in China director Lu Chuan for the magnificent cinematography but please. I drove all the way out to Burbank for this? It opens on 4.21.