Pandas are a rare sight in the United States. After Bao Bao left the National Zoo in D.C. last year, only 12 giant pandas remain in the country. Director and producer of “Born to Be Wild” Drew Fellman brings a treat of IMAX quality shots of some of the most universally beloved animals in his new documentary, “Pandas.” Fellman weaves together a story of people who work together across countries to populate the once-panda-rich forests in China with these large furry mammals once again.
The film takes place at the Chengdu Panda Base, where “panda mom” and researcher Hou Rong struggles to find the best way to introduce pandas bred and brought up in captivity back into the wild. Her research leads her to Lyme, New Hampshire, where biologist Ben Kilham infamously raised over 100 cubs in captivity over the span of 30 years, eventually releasing them all into the wild. The story is enticing and encouraging, bringing in local Wen Lei Bi from the Sichuan province and wildlife researcher Jacob Owens as the starring panda’s closest human mentors.
“Pandas” especially shines in its earlier scenes, when the babies are nursed and cuddly, their eyes closed. The playfulness of the scenes add to the overall emotional draw of the lovable nature of these animals. Among the pandas, Qian Qian stands out quickly amongst the other pandas and proves herself to be the one chosen for the upcoming task of releasing pandas into the wild.
The IMAX cameras emphasize and draw out the beauty of the sprawling mountains in the landscape where Owens and Bi lead Qian Qian in her training. As Qian Qian grows larger, the task becomes more challenging—Owens can no longer wrestle as easily with her, her food supply grows larger, and her impending release date draws nearer. Fellman uses the gate between her forest preserve environment and the wild as a symbol for the dramatic step forward that Qian Qian makes, one that brings bittersweet joy.
Kristen Bell, famously the voice of Princess Anna in “Frozen,” is a safe choice for the film’s narration. She’s smooth and soothing, though sometimes the optimism and lack of depth in her voice create disingenuousness. The shot of Qian Qian hesitating at the gate between the preserve and the wild outside of that preserve is indicative of the most powerful message in the film—this is not a success story. Though the collaboration brings us one step closer towards saving giant pandas in the wild, it remains in the early stages of testing and has no guarantee of success. Cherishing this effort, applauding it, and just appreciating the cause and attempt is a crucial layer of the film.
Ultimately, the pandas, especially Qian Qian, upstage the actors and actresses in the film. Even in the few dark moments of the film, Qian Qian’s soft eyes invoke softness and reassurance. The film sparks the continuous love for these animals for audiences of all generations, reminding them that the struggles pandas face is far from over. Though scenes of the plethora of panda babies bundled at the research base and climbing in their jungle playgrounds at the Chengdu Research Base all ring with positive notes, Qian Qian’s uncertain future in the wild serves as the driving force of calls for continuous efforts towards conservation research of the species.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22.
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