Friday, April 6, 2018

Pandas: Far more than mere pandemonium

Pandas (2018) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

The English language isn’t up to the challenge of discussing this film.

The usual go-to words — cute, adorable — simply aren’t sufficient.

In the safety of China's Chengdu Panda Base, American
conservation biologist Jake Owens soon develops an
impressive bond with Qian Qian, a young, captive-born
female panda that he and fellow scientists hope to
introduce into the wild.
Pandas clearly is being marketed on the basis of its awwwwwww factor; IMAX and Warner Bros. would be foolish to do otherwise. And, yes, this 43-minute charmer spends considerable time with the poignant and often hilarious antics of roly-poly infant pandas: sequences that we wish could run longer, because they’re just too, ah, cute for words.

But the best IMAX documentaries also draw their emotional power from a compelling through-story, and this one’s no different. Filmmakers David Douglas and Drew Fellman — who also brought us 2011’s Born to Be Wild and 2014’s Islands of Lemurs: Madagascar — focus on China’s noble effort to avert catastrophe, by reversing a man-made crisis.

Specifically, the decline of the giant panda population, as a result of their traditional habitat being drastically reduced by human development. As narrator Kristen Bell soberly informs us, toward the beginning of this film, roughly 300 pandas currently are in captivity in facilities (zoos, etc.) around the globe, and only about 2,000 remain in the wild. And the latter are divided into isolated pockets within central China’s Sichuan, Shaanzi and Gansu Provinces, thereby minimizing gene pools and preventing the desired cross-breeding that would enhance hybrid vigor.

A potential solution, long in coming, began with a captive breeding program at the Chengdu Panda Base, where scientist Hou Rong has been director of research since 1994. Douglas and Fellman begin their film by introducing her, along with the most recent infants — some reference sources insist on the term “cupboard,” for a group of pandas — among the more than 200 baby pandas that have been born and raised during her tenure.

The current goal of this soft-spoken “Panda Mom” is to facilitate the release, into the wild, of at least some of her clinic-bred charges. Her desire to maximize the chances of success takes her across the globe, to the woods of northeast New Hampshire, in order to collaborate with Ben Kilham. Back in 1992, he and his sister Phoebe were granted a state license to rehabilitate orphaned black bear cubs; since then, the Kilham Bear Center has successfully returned more than 160 cubs to the wild.

We’re granted intimate access not only to the eight-acre enclosure that provides these cubs with everything they need to socialize, climb trees and forage for food; but also to the endearingly boisterous, yet oddly intimate process of bottle-feeding three tiny cubs in the Kilham living room.

The “secret” to Kilham’s method clearly revolves around the long walks — up to nine hours at a time — that he takes with his charges, all the while talking to them, playing with them, and encouraging them to, well, become bears. Most astonishing is the degree to which he bonds with them: a strong relationship depicted when we meet Squirty, a 22-year-old female who has had 11 sets of cubs in the wild, but who still ambles slowly toward Kilham’s parked car and greets him affectionately — insofar as her roughly 200 pounds allows — when he visits her in the forest.

That’s jaw-dropping.

But the best is yet to come.

Readily persuaded by Kilham’s “mentoring” process, Hou Rong returns to China, convinced that such methods can be used to educate her “city kid” pandas about life in the country. Kilham, unable to leave his own black bears, encourages her to work with Jake Owens, an American conservation biologist who has navigated rugged terrain all over the world. He, in turn, is joined at Chengdu Panda Base by Bi Wen Lei, an assistant researcher from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

Together with Hou Rong, they tackle the problem of bonding with young pandas that tend to run and hide when approached, and which spook at even minor unexpected noises.

The resulting process, as distilled from what must have been hours and hours and hours of footage — pandas not being the most cooperative of subjects — is fascinating, heartwarming and gently informative (the tried and true IMAX documentary formula).

Jake’s efforts soon focus on Qian Qian, a 6-month-old female cub with a clear independent streak, who nonetheless is capable of unexpected displays of affection for the two-legged companion who rough-houses with her so energetically. (As Owens later admits, he eventually began jiu jitsu lessons as Qian Qian and her facility siblings grew larger, in order to know how to maneuver his body out of their grip, when they wanted to play too hard.)

This is where the already fascinating story becomes really compelling.

Douglas and Fellman detail these events with the crisp economy of practiced filmmakers. Their approach — particularly the editing — obeys the entertainment world’s most important dictum: They leave us wanting more.

The rigorous mentoring sessions and panda antics gain additional dramatic (and comedic) heft from composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s carefully crafted orchestral passages, which are blended with scene-appropriate pop songs such as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

The film’s brief glimpses of China also are engaging, particularly the sequences shot in the attractive communities adjacent to Chengdu Panda Base.

And I suppose we can forgive Douglas and Fellman for including a bamboo-enhanced snowman amid the panda games, by way of acknowledging the song (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”) that Bell sang in Frozen.

Pandas is an impressive package, start to finish. As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, during discussions of IMAX documentaries, it sure would’ve been nice to have such sophisticated educational tools during my childhood school days.

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