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IMAX 3-D films continue to pull in audiences, world-wide. With their short-feature length of forty minutes, the prospect of turning over a paying audience every hour has to be a attractive to exhibitors. I reviewed Mysteries of the Unseen World a while back; now Virgil Films is presenting a more traditional IMAX subject, the giant Pandas of China.
Released by National Geographic but produced by Oxford Scientific Films, Pandas: The Journey Home received the full cooperation of China's Wolong Panda Center, where the endangered animals are bred -- not an easy task in captiivity -- with the goal of releasing them into the wild, to replenish populations depleted by human expansion.
This is exactly how we like our nature science films -- no fancy tricks, no confusion between reality and special effects. The filmmakers capture beautiful 3-D images of the creatures in their habitat, and quickly get down to the business being conducted at the Panda Center, an obvious source of pride for China.
Although things don't get too dicey, the very first scene up shows the Woolong staffers mating Pandas, a process that we are assured is very difficult, without irony. The female is fertile only two days out of the year, so she's artificially inseminated in case of failure on the male Panda's part. A second Panda is deployed when the first swain flops. Said to be experienced, the Panda from door # 2 is what can be described as a ready teddy. When sex part is over, we see the scientists observing the birth and managing the early development of twin baby Pandas. Since the mother will keep one cub and ditch the second, they're swapped out every two days. This isn't easy, as the Panda mother can kill with one swipe of it claws. Taking the cub out of her lap looks like risky work.
It's taken years, but the specialists have worked out a breeding program with a high success rate. They're at a stage where they can now release bears into the wild, or at least the semi-wild.
These Panda cubs are being raised in captivity, but the Woolong people have worked out a system that (hopefully) prepares them for life in the real world. For a bear life in the wild just means finding bamboo to eat and water to drinkÉ and avoiding predators such as large leopards. The most amusing part of the show lets us see how the bears are turned loose on two acres of forest and not fed or helped by people. When a young bear needs to be rounded up, keepers go in wearing funny-looking Panda suits. If it sounds like a glamorous job, think again. The narrator Joely Richardson tells us that the fuzzy suits are smeared with Panda urine and Panda poo, so as to mask human odors. You get poo duty today, Xiao. 1
The conclusion shows a formal ceremony with Chinese officials watching as Tau Tau, the Panda of the week, is released into the wild, He's already been trained to fear leopards with more trickery -- a stuffed leopard smeared with authentic leopard poo and urine. Off somewhere in the high hills, his GPS monitor still active, Tau Tau is still climbing every mountain like a trooper, and hopefully siring new Pandas in the wild.
The neatly constructed docu keeps things simple, with no messy details and no hint of the slightest controversy about the noble work being done at Woolong. We meet a cheerful scientist 'with the luckiest job in the world' who buses with her colleagues to the Panda center. All the facilities look modern. We are shown an older center that was destroyed by landslides in an earthquake in 2008; the area lies in the middle of steep, misty mountains. The movie ends on a Disneyish note that implies that the hills will soon be alive with Pandas, when nobody knows how successful the 'returning to the wild' part of the project will be.
Pandas are obviously a big PR booster for China, a way to sidestep thorny issues in the world press, like and the country's catastrophic ecological problems, or just human rights in general. So we aren't surprised that the film's focus stays narrow. The impression given is that China = animal lovers. The story is set in a gorgeous provincial city, away from killer smog and other grief. Seeing these clever animal husbandry experts at work definitely creates a positive image for the nation.
Virgil Films' 3-D and 2-D Blu-ray + DVD of Pandas: The Journey Home is a gorgeous, informative and relaxing experience. The 3-D images are restful and serene, with the photogenic Pandas going about their business amid dense forest greenery under misty mountain peaks. The baby Pandas are of course adorable. The newborns almost look like half-finished muppets, with hair that might be sewn on from a dish scrub pad. They soon start to look like the cute bears we know, and look harmless and cuddly until we see the row of steak knives they have for claws. Yes, the narrator calls the Panda bear gentle and peaceful, but I don't want the job of stealing away a mama bear's cub. EIther they're fibbing, or that staffer is really taking his chances.
The one extra is an hour-long National Geographic TV docu from 1983 called Save the Panda. It's from un-restored old video and doesn't look very good, and is of course flat, not 3-D. It's a good example of the quality programming that came from NatGeo in the past. If this is how films are going to be preserved in the future, a heritage of good programming is in dire straits. The soft narration is by Richard Basehart.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I'm terrible. It also sounds like a setup for a gross gag in a film comedy, putting these guys in Panda suits when amorous Pandas are loitering and lurking on the street corners, looking for a good time.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.