Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Panda Bears are freaking adorable. Long a symbol for pride in China and for cuddly cuteness everywhere else, the species’ numbers are sadly dwindling. However, there are good people in the world trying to save them. Directors David Douglas and Drew Fellman (who also wrote and produced) let audiences in on a groundbreaking new conservation effort in the riveting short IMAX documentary, PANDAS. Enchanting, enlightening and educational in equal measure, this is one to go wild over.
This short focuses on the next step of the dwindling panda problem: how to take those bred in captivity and get them to thrive in the wild. Scientists at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, or “Panda Base” as they frequently call it, are attempting a new strategy with panda cubs that demonstrate curiosity and courage. Using an approach developed by New Hampshire-based black bear rehabilitator Ben Kilham, lead conservationist/ “Panda Mom” Hou Rong and her team – heartthrob biologist Dr. Jake Owens and Chinese scientist Bi Wen Lei – experiment with introducing cub Qian Qian into the wild.
There’s nothing cuter than a baby panda – and these filmmakers know it. 3D is the best technique to emphasize this fact. Same goes for the sequences that show the growing pandas tumbling around with each other in the garden and taking a shine to Owens (who wouldn’t?!), who professes that jiu jitsu aids in his panda play. The pandas frequently break the fourth wall, staring into the eyes and souls of the audience. It’s wonderfully disarming and bound to make hearts swell. Adding to the panda-monium, Kristen Bell’s pitch-perfect voice provides the warmth and charm needed to sell an educational nature film. She also delivers some of the picture’s dialogue-driven levity – like when Qian Qian is eating bamboo incessantly.
It’s astonishing how much the filmmakers are able to fit into the short span of 40 minutes. There are laughs aplenty at all the panda pratfalls and silly lines. There are juicy montages of the pandas at play that conjure “coo’s” and “squee’s” from the audience, balancing out the scenes of the humans figuring out how to tackle such an important issue. The filmmakers also pack in stunning, eye-popping shots of nature. From the fall foliage of New England, to the forest of China’s Chengdu province, Douglas and Fellman have done a magnificent job immersing audiences into a world most of us will never see.
What’s most surprising is that there’s enough time allotted to fall in love with these cuddly pandas and their caretakers – so when the real drama hits (and it does, but it’s not too intense for toddlers), it provokes an earned, heartfelt reaction to the stakes these scientists and animals face.
PANDAS opens this Friday, August 17th for a special one-week engagement in commercial IMAX locations across the country.