Overbearingly adorable documentary 'Babies' is nearly abstract
It's distinctly possible that "Babies" is review-proof.
I saw the film earlier tonight at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, as part of a special promotional screening. I'm not sure how they did the word of mouth for the event, but there were a lot of mothers with very young babies in attendance. It was like having extra Dolby speakers sprinkled throughout the auditorium, randomly cooing and crying and blabbering.
And the movie played tonight. It played like it was "There's Something About Mary" to that crowd, big laughs throughout. The film is non-narrative in any traditional sense, and there's something about the visual language, the choices made in how it's cut, what is shown, that is almost like a straight-faced parody of nature documentaries. I don't think it's intentional... I just think that the "big idea" of the film is basically shooting human babies in four different places in the world like they're wildlife, a la "Planet Earth."
Ponijao, Bayar, Hattie, and Mari are the four babies that were chosen by the filmmakers, and they live in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and the US, each in very specific, very different surroundings. The film traces two years in the development of these kids, and it does so without any voice-over or any dialogue. What little talking takes place in the film is there simply as ambient sound, part of the background of what the directors are shooting. It's cut to compare and contrast the way these kids develop, to show a common experience in the first few years of life with a family.
The children are all charming and inquisitive and adorable, and the appeal of the film is simple. Watching long single shots of a child learning to interact with the world... that's something primal that is going to appeal to a large percentage of people who see it. We're hardwired to feel protective of these wee people, these tiny defenseless copies of us. I've been through the first two years with two different kids now, and each time, it's been totally different. There are certain milestones children hit... things from rolling over to sitting up to focusing on objects to crawling to laughing to climbing up to a standing position and eventually to walking... stages that kids tackle in very different ways, and that's the basic point of the thing. By cutting from one to the other to the other, from the natural and basic way of life for little Ponijao in Namibia to the remote and rugged Mongolian home of Bayar, from the ultra-modern elegance of little Mari's upscale Tokyo apartment to Hattie's hippie San Francisco background.... what's clearest is the way the kids are alike.
But talking about it like that, it makes it feel more structured and obvious than it is. The film is "Koyaanisqatsi" for Anne Geddes fans, and your reaction to it will depend largely on your tolerance for cute. They had to have shot miles and miles of footage of these kids, and the "voice" to the film, such as it is, consists of editing choices. It's an intentionally funny movie, and it's packed with little mini-narratives, completely Raymond Carver-sized short stories about the kids. There's major drama in each little accomplishment.
The film is handsomely made, and my guess is there's a big market for the film. Releasing it on Mother's Day weekend is fiendishly brilliant. The fathers in the film are largely absent, seen here and there in the shots, but for the most part, this is a film about mothers and babies together, and that bond is deeply romanticized by the film. Even though the point appears to be a dispassionate look at things, the film's too cuddly to really make any hard observations about the differences between the first and third worlds. In the end, "Babies" is a film that works on a surface immediate level, but it's not much of a movie. Beyond the cute surface, the film has nothing much to say.
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