IMAX’s newest documentary “Pandas,” which is being shown at the National Air and Space Museum, brings to life the incredible story of the panda Qian Qian and her bond with wildlife biologist Dr. Jacob Owens as they prepare her for life in the wild. Directed by Drew Fellman and David Douglas, the film’s short format, breathtaking cinematography and engaging narration by Kristen Bell make it enrapturing and heartwarming.
From her birth at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China to her adulthood in the mountains of Sichuan province, Qian Qian is as much an actress as any human film figure: Her playfulness and clear devotion to Owens make her an instantly endearing protagonist.
The documentary begins by introducing the center at which Qian Qian was born and quickly establishes the purpose of the Chengdu Panda Base’s release program — to bolster the dwindling number of wild pandas. Currently, there are fewer than 2,000 wild giant pandas.
Several shots show Qian Qian and Owens playing in the grass and wrestling with one another, even as the panda continues to grow. Qian Qian follows Owens around like a dog does its owner. When Qian Qian develops an infection a few weeks after her release into the wild, she is ushered back into captivity by Owens and his team so she can recuperate. Though Qian Qian has not yet been released into the wild for the second time, an optimistic tone at the end of the film signals faith in a bright future for the panda.
Though the overall upbeat tone of this documentary means it is great for kids and adults alike, the directors ignore one critical problem: climate change. In a question-and-answer session with Owens, the biologist stressed habitat fragmentation and climate change as the two greatest threats to panda populations.
Though Owens emphasized the importance of public awareness on climate change during the speaking event, the seriousness of the situation was not emphasized in the film. By including information about the danger of climate change and the human causes of it, “Pandas” could have encouraged audiences to change their behaviors — if only for the sake of the pandas.
The first two years of Qian Qian’s life are captured by stunning shots that makes ample use of China’s natural wonders. Panoramic views of waterfalls and treetops are amazing to behold, particularly in 3-D. The film’s music, composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, is well-chosen and generally upbeat. Together, the documentary’s visual and audio elements make Qian Qian’s story all the more enthralling.
No matter the occasion, “Pandas” promises an uplifting plot and numerous adorable baby pandas. The awe-inspiring panoramic images of nature and endearing story is worth a trek out to the National Air and Space Museum.
“Pandas” opens at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on April 6. Museum admission is free, but tickets for the movie range from $7-9.