After 'March of the Penguins' became a substantial hit in 2005, most studios were looking for the next zeitgeist-capturing documentary to electrify both the art houses and the multiplexes. And if it's one thing that 'March of the Penguins' had, it's an overabundance of "awwwww." People aren't going to readily get behind and make a big push for the meta-textual prickliness of, say, the outstanding Banksy documentary 'Exit Through the Gift Shop.' But cute stuff? Studios can sell the crap out of cute stuff, and Americans love cute stuff too (let us all think back to the beanie baby craze of the mid-90s).
Enter the French documentary 'Babies,' which was released this past spring by Focus (a subsidiary of Universal Pictures), as a stab at counter-programming big budget fare like 'Iron Man 2' and 'How to Train Your Dragon.' All it had going for it (indeed the entire marketing was centered around this) was a level of built-in adorableness. A movie called 'Teenagers' wouldn't exactly have attracted the warm-and-fuzzy feelings they were going for.
The set-up is simple and devoid of the two touchstones of recent documentary work: it has neither a narrative (at least we knew the life cycle of penguins or whatever) or a cause (countless environmentally-themed docs like 'An Inconvenient Truth'). Instead, it's just a series of moment; tableaus of cheek-pinching precociousness. And it made me want to find the nearest bridge and then promptly jump off it.
There are four real-life babies in the movie, from four very different parts of the world: Ponijao from Namibia; Bayar from Mongolia; Mari from Tokyo; and Hattie from San Francisco. Director Thomas Balmes documents their little lives from the time of their birth to their first birthday, which straightaway makes you realize on thing: the first year of anybody's life, no matter where it is, is totally boring.
You watch the babies try to walk, you watch them fall down. Time and time again, in an attempt to up the cuteness factor to an almost unbearable degree, you watch the babies interact with animals: the Mongolian baby stares quizzically at a rooster (and then, later, has its bath water stolen by a goat); the Japanese baby stares at a gorilla at the zoo; the American baby shares some quality time with a house cat.
In a particularly painful moment you see the San Francisco parents bringing their child to a New Age-y group where they chant Native American prayers (or at least they sound like Native American prayers) while the parents lift their arms above their heads. It's a moment of complete, laughable absurdity. And it's one of many.
I guess there's something admirable in the movie's simplicity and lack of clutter (there is no narration and no subtitles) and seeing the way other cultures raise their children is fascinating. The movie also looks really good, with robust photography from three separate cinematographers, which goes a long way in capturing the different topographical locations of each baby.
But man, is this some repetitive, all together inconsequential nonsense. It's mercifully short, I'll give it that, and the last shot is pretty striking, but man is it a slog. You don't really learn anything about other cultures, except that they're different, and there's no natural arc to follow throughout each of the babies' lives. It's just sort of there, slobbering and aching for our receptiveness. There's only so much one man can take, when it comes to this kind of cuddly feel-goodery. And this man can take very little, apparently.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc of 'Babies' does automatically play but pauses at the main menu, which features some more of that annoyingly twinkly music. It is Region A locked and is BD-Live ready, although at the time of this review no additional content was available. That's pretty much it.
'Babies,' with its VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.85:1) does, at the very least, look really good. With the wonderful variety of landscapes and locations, it is a gorgeous looking documentary, if one that is totally lacking in substance or any real juice.
And, really, that's what matters here. Without any subtitles or narration, 'Babies' is an almost purely visual experience, and with the locations, ranging from Namibia to San Francisco, well, thankfully this transfer delivers the goods.
Skin tones look good, fine detail is nice, and although there isn't even the faintest whiff of grain, the image still maintains a robustly film-like quality that never seems soft or fuzzy with digital manipulation. It's just a really clean transfer, without any post-production shadiness.
There isn't much to say in terms of negatives in regards to this transfer; there aren't any technically glitchy issues to speak of and the movie itself looks sparkly clean. I may have hated the movie, but there's no getting around the impressiveness of this transfer.
Similarly, although not to quite the same degree, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a good job. It's listed as being in "English," only because there are a few words that the American parents say to their baby. Besides that, the language is that of whatever country the movie takes place in.
(The "English subtitles" listed here, also, just apply to the American sections. Bizarre.)
If you're looking for a full-bodied surround mix to rattle your subwoofers, then you should probably look elsewhere. While there are some nice moments of atmosphere that allow for the additional speakers to spring to life, mostly in the more crowded sections of the Mongolia and Africa baby storylines, there isn't a whole lot here.
The twinkly score, far too cutesy for my taste (but what in this movie isn't?), does sound hearty, though, I'll give it that, and sound effects (like the American baby splashing in a pool) do pop without ever overwhelming. In fact, if I had one very nice thing to say about the audio mix it is that the sound effects lend the movie a rich, tactile feeling that actually goes a long way in putting you in whatever environment the movie is set.
And yes, babies cooing in digitally amped-up sound is adorable.
There are only a couple of extras on this disc, and even though it's a Universal disc, the only BD-Live enabled baloney is the feature where you can control the disc via your Blackberry.
'Babies' is currently a Target exclusive, but next time you're there buying socks, don't throw 'Babies' in your basket unless you're already a fan. It's a largely aimless, frightfully dull documentary that has no point, thesis, or narrative besides "Gee, aren't babies cute," which, granted, they are (well, except for unibrow babies). But you don't have to watch 85 minutes of babies interacting with various animals to understand that. And really, this Blu-ray is too anemic, even with handsome audio and video, with two tiny special features.Skip it, unless you're a big, big fan.