What are they, and why are they so popular?
Directed by Thomas Balmes
Two weeks ago, just in time for Earth Day, Disney released its family-friendly documentary Oceans. This weekend, just in time for Mother’s Day, Focus Features releases its family-friendly documentary Babies. Like its watery predecessor, there’s no false advertising in Babies. It’s about babies.
Shot over the course of a year in four diverse corners of the world by a French team of filmmakers, Babies follows a handful of newborns through their first year of life. In Mongolia, there’s Bayar. In San Francisco, there’s Hattie. In Tokyo, there’s Mari. And in Namibia, there’s Ponijao. Ditching narration, dialogue and pretty much any semblance of a narrative, Babies simply presents us with cute pictures of babies—what more could mom want for Mother’s Day?
As a documentary, Babies is a slim affair. There isn’t much that’s educational to be had here. The film isn’t trying to discuss the disparities in health care worldwide. It isn’t trying to dissect cultural differences in child rearing. It’s basically just saying that babies are cute all over the world. At a stretch, you could say that Babies offers up some sort of touchy-feely, multi-culti, “deep down, we’re all the same” philosophy. Sure enough, newborn babies—whether they’re from the deserts of Namibia or the hills of San Francisco—all cry, drool and pee on themselves. What did you expect? Unfortunately, babies don’t do a whole lot else. Mostly, they just sleep, suck boob and look cute—which is about all this film demands of them.
As our four subjects navigate their first year of life—from birth to first steps—a few minor differences do begin to surface. Hattie and Ponijao exhibit the most personality. Our American subject is a goggle-eyed gal who seems genuinely amazed at everything around her. Our African subject, meanwhile, is a chubby bruiser who scampers through the dirt, sticking everything she can into her mouth and cheerfully suffering the slings and arrows of her eight older brothers and sisters. Sociologically, we manage to glean a few things. The lives of kids in Japan and America appear very structured, with parents shuttling them from exercise class to day care to shopping to the park. Crawling around a mud-walled village in the middle of the Namib Desert, Ponijao is left largely to her own devices—occasionally scolded or tended to by whatever family member or neighbor might be nearby. Meanwhile, in a tiny yurt on the isolated steppes of Mongolia, little Bayar is wrapped tight in swaddling, tossed onto the family bed like a burbling throw pillow and largely ignored.
If nothing else, Babies is a mild testament to our resilience as a species. Covered in dust, fending off swarms of flies and baking under the African sun, Ponijao seems perfectly content. Over in Mongolia, Bayar is brought home from the hospital on the back of a stuttering motorbike and learns to crawl under the hooves of his family’s cattle herd. American parents would be alarmed by such conditions; but for the rest of the world, it’s business as usual. Nobody seems worse for the wear. In fact, in comparison, corn-haired California girl Hattie comes across as positively coddled by neo-hippie parents who feed her organic food and teach her Native American chants.
Despite the fact that it isn’t much more than an Anne Geddes screensaver come to life, Babies does have a certain awwww appeal. The filmmakers do manage to capture some precious moments: Bayar being gently abused by a jealous older sibling; Mari throwing a tantrum when her underdeveloped motor skills won’t allow her to manipulate her toys properly; Hattie doing her best to escape that Native American chant class. But, honestly, if you aren’t enamored with the idea of cooing over 80 minutes’ worth of somebody else’s baby pictures, then Babies probably isn’t for you.
Me? I smiled a couple of times and didn’t want to kill myself. But just for the record: If next year somebody tries to release a film called Puppies, I’m gonna get real nervous.