Picture me, a 20-something year-old, crying alone in an IMAX 3D feature film at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, all because a panda cub is lost and hurt in the wild. The search party suspensefully hikes for days to locate the panda by her GPS collar. I’ve been a fan of pandas since I made my animal-habitat diorama on them in first grade, gathering bamboo leaves from my backyard. Because of this history, I wouldn’t categorize my emotional distress during “Pandas” the documentary as anything too out of character.
It’s been a while since I saw a film in 3D, but because it was in the Boeing Theatre, a dome-shaped space ideal for 3D viewing, it didn’t seem as over the top as other 3D films and really added to the stunning visuals. Not to mention—when your story’s leading lady is an independent and sassy 3-year-old panda cub, Qian Qian, you really ought to do her justice.
It has also been too long since I giggled and aww’ed in public over the adorable force of nature that pandas truly are. Sure, it seemed like I was the oldest non-parent in the packed theatre, but I was nonetheless enthralled from start to finish.
The film opens up with narrator Kristen Bell’s enthusiastic and sweet voiceover, as she sets the stage for the discussion on wildlife restoration and pandas (coined in the film as the “King Kong of cute”). The looming threat of extinction is positioned as an effect of human interaction, with sweeping landscapes, beautiful temples and mountains being filmed to show the human hand in the world’s natural resources.
So when “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ TOP plays while panda cubs roll down slides, wrestling and squealing in the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in China, the tempo change is met with audible enthusiasm from the theatre. My heart swelled as the little kids in front of me reached out towards the screen to touch the pandas, the 3D visuals perfectly capturing the curious cubs as they crawled towards the camera lens.
This film achieves a unifying joy I haven’t felt in a theatre since watching “Return of the Jedi.” Maybe it’s because I love pandas as much as Chewbacca, but “Pandas” successfully interrogates globalism and environmental responsibility in a way that makes sense to a child, potentially starting the conversation between the younger generation and their parents.
We are first introduced to Hou Rong, the research director at Chengdu, a seasoned biologist having successfully raised 200 pandas in her 24 years at the research base. Her next step for panda rehabilitation is ambitious, and the focus of the documentary: to introduce them into the wild. Back in the United States, Ben Kilham is doing important work with black bears. A man with the stature and likability of John Goodman but the heart and ingenuity of a biologist, he and his family have successfully raised 150 black bears for wildlife release in the New England area for decades.
Cue the hilarious and heartwarming scene of Kilham walking through the forest in his hiking boots and Levi’s, followed by six rambunctious cubs filing behind him like ducklings. Traveling to America herself to enlist Kilham’s help, Huo Rong and Kilham team up to apply the method of human compassion, trust, and GPS tracking to aid the pandas’ transition into the wild. This exchange and collaboration of ideas and experience makes for a good start to the nature documentary, but there is a thread of American excellence woven throughout the narrative to appeal to the predominate American audience and make it relevant to their cultural achievements.
The Disneynature and IMAX documentary conglomerates make money of off telling wordly stories through a lens of science, humor and interconnectedness and it sells. For the last few years, Earth Day has brought on a slew of family-friendly nature films, usually donating a proceed of opening week sales to wildlife funds for efforts documented in the film.
There is a market, established through credible research, dialed-in cinematography and that charming Disney-esque storytelling that entices viewer’s curiosity for “far-away” lands, to put it mildly.
We see another international pairing later in the film. Field biologist Jake Owens from America and Bi Wen Lei from a small village in Mongolia have been working with panda cub Qian Qian since she was born. They watch her grow up and transition from the research base to wildlife enclosures. As the young men work over the years together, as friends, researchers and the two closest to Qian Qian, this relationship becomes the heart and soul of the film.
Wen Lei acts as Owen’s guide as they take Kung Fu classes together to sharpen their agility to “wrestle” with Qian Qian, join for meals of local delicacies and interact with many locals. Owens, apparently the more established wildlife biologist, believes Wen Lei has grown into an excellent field biologist and can take over the panda research in the future. The behind-the-scenes footage of this partnering shows a mutual collaboration of respect and expertise that puts a face to what we mean when we say the environment calls for a “global effort.”
Despite problematic undertones of American excellence, the adorable and educational panda research in this film creates a channel exposure for a young audience to see the cross-cultural exchange of research, resources, and optimism as something to inspire and achieve a shared goal. As the credits roll in with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” bopping throughout the theatre, you can’t help but smile and wiggle-dance in your seat, even if you are double the age of the majority of the audience.
Jacqueline may be reached at