In almost every sense, Disney Nature's "Born in China" is a BBC "Planet Earth" episode for kids.
"Born in China" rotates through both seasons and species, following the exploits of selected members of three different animal families as they make their way through a calendar year.
The first subject is Dawa, a snow leopard living high in rocky outcrops of dangerous mountain ranges, trying to provide food for her two cubs. We see them navigate almost vertical slopes, slinking along the rocks as they hunt from a nearby flock of blue sheep and fend off competing leopards.
"Born in China" also follows a family of golden snub nosed monkeys, a bright orange tree-climbing group that represents the only one of the documentary's chosen animals to function as a nuclear family. The focus is on TaoTao, a young male who, discouraged by the attention given to a brand new baby sister, flirts with a mischievous group of loners called "the lost boys."
While those two threads frequently deal with predators — young snub nosed monkeys are periodically carried away by hawks — the panda segment is relatively conflict-free. A mother named YaYa is raising a cub named MeiMei, reluctantly allowing her offspring to follow its instinct to climb trees. (According to the documentary, the ability to climb a tree marks a bear's readiness to leave its mother, so there may be some separation anxiety in play.)
While there are three primary characters in "Born in China," the Disney Nature crew also lets us spend some time with a vast herd of chiru antelope, and some remarkable footage of the young chiru — who are walking within 30 minutes of birth.
The seasonal story is also bookended by some beautiful footage of red-crowned cranes, a sacred animal in China, deeply steeped in mythology and local beliefs about life and death.
This symbolism comes in especially handy since, like all nature documentaries, "Born in China" must also deal with the harsh and frequently violent realities of its subject. Where specials like BBC's "Planet Earth" might allow for more graphic depictions of hunts and kills, "Born in China" is careful to edit in a way that spares its young audience the visual, even though its sobering message still comes through.
"Born in China" is crafted for kids, but it doesn't present itself as a fairy tale. Rather, it offers the death of its subject as part of a bigger picture within the life cycle of the region, often sending a very tender message to what will likely be a sensitive audience.
Of course, the documentary's prime draw — if you aren't counting cuteness — is the sheer beauty and astounding intimacy of its footage. Sweeping landscapes are intercut with closeup and personal footage of the animals, frequently in conditions that leave you wondering how the crews were able to get not just the quality of the footage, but the multi-angle abundance of it. (Be sure to stick around for the closing credits if you are left wondering the same thing.)
Actor John Krasinski's narration and the construction of each animal's story aims "Born in China" at a young audience, but the film is still a documentary, and may still stretch the attention spans of some viewers. It will likely help that director Lu Chuan's film clocks in at a modest — but thorough — 76 minutes.
"Born in China" may not inspire the merchandising juggernaut of some of Disney's other properties, but it is a fun, insightful and beautiful way to learn about a part of the world most will never see otherwise.
"Born in China" is rated G; running time: 76 minutes.