The newest IMAX film has, as usual, some extraordinarily beautiful scenic footage, this time of the interior of China; and it adds some nice wildlife footage, in the present case of several pandas gamboling in the forest. In terms of sheer eye-candy, it’s quite pleasurable.
Unfortunately, like most of the recent big-screen films, it adds a narrative to the mix–a by-the-numbers story that can’t help but seem crushingly old-fashioned, however fine its intentions. The heroine is Ruth Harkness (Maria Bello), the young widow of an American explorer who died in China while on an expedition to study the elusive, almost legendary panda, which is reputed among the locals to be the most dangerous of beasts. Harkness arrives in 1936 to take charge of her husband’s remains, but with the help of an admiring local, Quentin Young (Xia Yu), she mounts her own search for the animal in order to complete her spouse’s work; she finds herself in competition with ‘Dak’ Johnston (Xander Berkeley), a dastardly hunter who’s out to bag one of the bears in his customarily cruel fashion. Elements of chance, fortitude, and tragedy ensue before an uplifting finale.
“China: The Panda Adventure” has the estimable purpose of warning viewers about the plight of a gentle, yet endangered species with the goal of enlisting them in the struggle for its survival. But as a movie it resembles a Disney flick from forty years past: indeed, what happens to the mother panda contains a strong whiff of “Bambi.” The treatment of the locals as colorful but submissive background figures seems outdated, too. (A particularly antiquated bit involves an older Chinese man who follows Harkness around after she saves his life on the rapids of the Yangtze because he now “owes” her.) Still, the picture remains harmless, lovingly photographed family entertainment, which at least gives us some amusing shots of the pandas in their native habitat. It’s a pity, though, that so much time is given over to the human characters, who are frankly much less interesting than the bears (and are portrayed by actors whose performances are strictly utilitarian). If you choose to see it, go for the animals and the scenery, not the pallid representations of homo sapiens searching them out there.