Once the black and white penguins were the rage, now the pandas have taken over the mantle, thanks to Disney in China in producing yet another film about this reclusive, iconic animal that's been the focus on preventing its extinction. Filmed in picturesque Wolong, Sichuan, it mixes documentary-styled footage of the pandas at play, with an extremely simple story (it's Disney after all) about a lonely young boy's friendship with an injured panda he nurses back to health.
And as far as kids movies are concerned, all adults have the propensity to become villains, and in this film, young orphan Xiaolu (Chinese-Japanese child actor Daichi Harashima) has to protect his animal friend from the clutches of his foster father Lao Chen (Zheng Qi) and a visiting panda researcher Feng (Feng Li), who is adamant in capturing the young injured panda christened Pang Pang (erm, Fat Fat) in order to bring it back to the research centre for studies. Lao Chen sees this as an opportunity to make money from his hunting skills, but to Xiaolu, both adults cannot be trusted since they were the ones who caused the near fatal injury to Pang Pang.
The film comprises of three simple acts, the first of which showcases more of the documentary footage of the pandas in action with Pang Pang (in reality more than 1 panda) running away from its pursuers, then Xiaolu stepping in as a guardian and striking up a deep friendship through some diligent nursing, and that both human and animal share similar traits in having lost their natural parents, hence a kind of unspeakable bond that exists between them. The last act is relatively more "action-packed", with a large dose of sentimentality thrown in, and a moral and environmental message that gets hammered home.
It's a known tactic I guess, if you have an actor who isn't well versed with the language the film is shot in, make him mute / refuse to talk. In that way, the actor won't feel too burdened by a speaking role, and is able to focus on delivering what's necessary. Here, Daichi Harashima's Xiaolu stays mum most of the time, being practically the child who has a life-sized bear playmate to hang out with, and I was even half-wondering if animatronics were employed for some of the wilder stunts that the pandas were put through, some of course obviously shot in front of a blue screen.
As mentioned, this is a simple film rated G for the family, and it's really geared for the kids. Amongst the slew of animal-centric films made in recent years, this is more like The Fox & the Child in narrative style, but with none of the sophistication in story-telling. You can read more on the production here.