Arts movie review

Panda pandemonium

‘PANDAS’ offers both delightfully cutesy fare while seriously exploring humanity’s role in environmental destruction and conservation

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Ben Kilham, PhD (Independent Wildlife Biologist/Black Bear Behavior) sits with a giant panda at Panda Valley in Dujiangyan, China.
Courtesy of Drew Fellman

Directed by David Douglas and Drew Fellman
Screenplay by Drew Fellman
Starring Kristen Bell, Hou Rong, Ben Kilham, Jakob Owens, Bi Wen Lei
Rated G
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Due to their adorable appearance, pandas have embedded themselves in human society as cute icons found in advertising and media. Embracing the cuteness of these animals, PANDAS depicts the challenges of panda conservation as Chinese and U.S. biologists collaborate to train panda cubs for success in their natural habitat. Despite an expected tendency towards schlocky fare, the film seriously considers how humans affect pandas and the cross-cultural connections formed to make the conservation project a success.

At Chengdu Panda Base in China, Hou Rong, the director of research, hopes to find a way to transition cubs bred in captivity to their natural habitat for wildlife conservation. Her quest for panda conservation brings her to New England, where Ben Kilham, known as the “bear whisperer,” resides and spends his time training orphaned black bear cubs for the wilderness. As they collaborate to practice Kilham’s methods on pandas, Jakob Owens, an American researcher, and Bi Wen Lei, a Chinese researcher, aid their efforts. The film then focuses on the journey of Qian Qian, the panda selected for testing the effectiveness of Kilham’s methods for pandas.
One of the most interesting parts of PANDAS is its depiction of science. Rather than the sterile and observational research often portrayed, Kilham’s methods are intensely interactive and nontraditional; the researchers guide the bears in playtime, walks in the forest, and feeding. Qian Qian’s growth forces the younger researchers to take up Brazilian jiu-jitsu to handle wrestling with her and tree climbing. These aspects of Kilham’s methods reinforce the connection between the humans and bears, a major theme of the movie. The trust between the two groups is an essential factor and a remarkable thing to see on film.

Beyond that bond, the film also explores the relationship between humans and pandas in social and environmental terms. In a stunning shot of the Leshan Giant Buddha, the film comments on the deforestation of panda habitats from human interference and the renewed interest in panda conservation from China. The panda evolves as a cultural icon, as seen in the shot of a giant panda statue climbing the face of a mall in Chengdu.

As an IMAX® 3D film, PANDAS depicts its cute subjects with great detail. The film’s animated opening, a shot of panda cubs too young to crawl, and Qian Qian’s roughhousing are all examples of the delightful visuals expected from a film about pandas. There are some points where the feature is more distracting than appealing, but the winning moments outweigh these faults. Narration is provided by Kristen Bell, who gives a rather bland performance which cheapens the quality of the film. In a departure from the grand symphonic scores found in documentaries like Planet Earth, the film’s score surprisingly features songs such as ZZ Top’s cover of “Sharp Dressed Man” and the Ramones’s cover of “Do You Wanna Dance.” These choices befit the film’s focus on the intertwining of pandas and human culture rather than expansive landscapes as in other documentaries.

As a rated G film, the film delivers wholesome entertainment that does not shy away from more serious questions such as deforestation and human interaction. Despite its inability to delve further into topics given its 44 minute runtime and apparent flaws, the film provides a compelling outlook on panda conservation that is perfect for families.