There’s an easy test to determine whether you’ll enjoy “Babies,” Thomas Balmes’ documentary that follows four newborns from birth to toddler-dom. If you look forward to a parent taking a stack of photos of his child out of his wallet and shuffling through them for your viewing pleasure, you’ll love the movie. If you ordinarily try to scurry away instead—and are happy when you succeed—probably not.
Balmes realizes the simple idea efficiently but obviously. Over the course of two years he and his crew recorded scenes from the early lives of their subjects: Bayarjargal from Mongolia, Mari from Japan, Ponijao from Namibia and Mattie from the United States, and he and editors Craig McKay and Reynald Bertrand have simply shuffled excepts from the footage together to shift back and forth among the locales, presumably in roughly chronological sequence.
The infants are shown amusing themselves and interacting with their parents and other relatives—in some cases older siblings, in others grandparents—as well as other children and sometimes animals. The effect is to emphasize the commonality of their experience as they come to recognize the world around them but also the vast cultural differences that separate the geographical areas in which they live. The kids of Tokyo and San Francisco obviously are introduced early on to their urban environments and the opportunities afforded by an advanced industrial society, while the children in south Africa and central Asia engage much more directly with nature and the critters that are part of their landscape. There’s no narration, which is probably for the best, since it would undoubtedly be drowned out by the chorus or “oohs” and “ahs” coming from the audience. But the lack of information about the larger family unit, the economic and political background and other similar matters leaves the film a collection of often cute snapshots rather than a work from which one might try to draw any conclusions about the virtues or problems of growing up in these settings, though admittedly looking for “universal” answers in such material would be a dangerously speculative game. It’s the overall theme alone that’s meant to have a universal appeal.
That said, “Babies” doesn’t possess the sort of anthropological interest that might have been brought to such a piece with a different approach. It might be amusing, even touching from moment to moment, but doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that sometimes kids do the darndest things. Technically it’s excellent, given what must have been a demanding shoot.
But the movie’s lackadaisical, meandering approach leaves it more an inoffensively charming scrapbook of early childhood than a richly rewarding study of nature and nurture like the Michael Apted’s incomparable “7 Up” series.