2.5 stars out of 5
Perhaps we are biologically inclined to find babies adorable – for the most part.
At the nascent stage of life, before socialisation has set in and made a significant impact and cultural differences are apparent, it stands to reason that babies are basically the same.
In ordinary circumstances, they all gurgle, drool and cry. They stare and they smile; they learn about their own bodies and they learn about their environments – and the other creatures that inhabit them.
They learn to move their limbs, to crawl and then to stumble before they can walk; they ‘speak’ baby talk and they find rudimentary ways to communicate.
Thomas Balmes’ film puts across these commonalities in the early human condition, and at the same time, with its unblinking observation of four infants from different backgrounds, in their natural habitats, points out the realities of economic disparity in today’s world.
While it is fascinating in parts, the film frequently feels repetitive and lacking in direction. The choice to not have a voiceover track – such as those that intone profundities in Jacques Perrin’s nature films (such as Oceans) – is admirable.
Balmes obviously wants to let his images – involving infants from Africa (a baby named Ponijao), Mongolia (Bayar), Japan (Mari) and America (Hattie) – do the ‘talking’.
The question is whether the images are engaging and thought-provoking enough. Overall, is it an enjoyable experience to sit in a dark cinema and observe the babies and their little lives? At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, the answer sadly is no.
Most people should already know that siblings and peers will invariably torment their infant kith and kin, regardless of colour or creed. You don’t have to buy a movie ticket to learn this universal truth.
The same goes for the way babies react with curiosity to the world they are born into. They stare into the camera, at people’s faces and at mobiles. They grab and tug at animals, including farm animals and household pets.
Through the eye of the beholder, some scenes may make this experience worthwhile. The humour in an infant haltingly dozing off translates across all international borders, as is one that falls asleep while feeding from his mother’s bosom.
For some viewers, there is drama in unfamiliar situations. Those of us not from an agrarian society will find it disconcerting how a baby can be left to his own devices sitting amongst livestock, or how another can be picking up bits of filth and placing them in his mouth.
If and when we make negative judgements while watching such scenes, we are reminded of our cultural differences, and different concepts of safety and hygiene. We also observe stark differences between complicated skyscraper-filled cities (San Francisco, Tokyo) and the simple rural landscapes of Bayanchandmani, Mongolia, and Opuwo, Namibia.
Anthropologically speaking, the compare-and-contrast observations are intrinsically intriguing. It’s just that Balmes’ film doesn’t offer any original nor particularly deep insights. It is regrettably forgettable.
One doesn’t feel any real connection with each infant and their family and situation, nor do we really learn very much. A more straightforward documentary format, such as found on nature channels, would teach us a lot more.
The soundtrack attempts to provide some cues in certain types of scenes, usually to denote an upcoming instance of humour or cuteness. The posters marketing this film also try to neatly associate each baby with a particular characteristic: Love, Naughtiness, Adventure and Tumbles.
No matter how it is packaged, or how many times the word ‘joyous’ is used by its promoters, the fact is that Babies is dry observation; the limited ‘adorable’ factor just can’t carry this film through.
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.