By Jim Slotek
If you could project cute social media kitten videos on IMAX, you’d have something of the vibe of Pandas, 50 minutes of the world’s cutest bamboo eaters frolicking and falling about hilariously in the forests of Sichuan, China.
Made for exhibition at science centres, Pandas is clearly made with children in mind. It has a serious core, an effort to raise the endangered pandas in captivity with eventual release in mind.
The project is based on a similar one conducted in the U.S. by black bear enthusiast Ben Kilham, who has filled the New Hampshire woods around him with now-feral bears that once lived in his home. Footage of Kilhham and his family at work helps pad out the puzzlingly short film.
But this connection underlines one of the weaknesses of a film that is pointedly aimed at children. They are smarter and hungrier for details than the makers of a film like this take them for. If you’re going to connect black bears and pandas, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the longstanding debate about whether pandas are more closely related to bears or raccoons. (DNA these days suggests the panda is indeed a form of bear, but the difference in outcome in the two experiments also suggests profound differences).
The movie, narrated by Kristen Bell, is infuriatingly spare with its facts. We follow the story of Qian Qian, a female panda who forms a bond with American researcher Jacob Owens and a Chinese colleague Bi Wen Li. The plan to reintroduce her to the wild does not come off without a disconcerting hitch or two.
And it is not until the crawl at the end that we discover there were, in fact, two pandas that were to star in this film. I’ll leave it to your imagination what happened with the other one, but it would have made this a less fuzzy and heartwarming film. It underscores the fact that IMAX is an expensive investment, and a project is not going to be scrapped just because its furry stars fail to follow the script.
In the end, Pandas is a movie whose results onscreen are at odds with the simple goal of eliciting oohs and ahhs. That is not to say it fails to live up to the visual promise of IMAX. The mountains of Sichuan are stunningly beautiful (and, seen in 3D, the bugs are so prolific that you’ll find yourself swatting at them reflexively).
For younger children (and their parents), who are able to overlook the actual narrative and just enjoy the clownish antics of pandas, Pandas is a fun, educationally empty experience. But older kids may have some questions. And since the movie is short on answers, parents should have their Google apps ready.