Marnie Tyler is an Australian zoologist passionate about her saving her beloved zoo from closing its doors. To do so, seeks out the viral internet sensation that is 'Sneezing Baby Panda'.
There are some universal truths that are held to be self-evident. One is that panda’s are cute. Another is that panda’s are really cute. Sceptics may scorn the notion but the panda has the numbers; enough of them to have the naysayers run and hide. Take this test case: there’s a 16-second video clip of a baby panda erupting in an enormous sneeze that has no less than 195,332,467 hits on YouTube as of 29 April, 2014. The video is badly shot but it does have the kind of gee-wiz comedy-quirk essential for social media mass appeal. The baby panda was sharing its enclosure – and the movie frame – with its mum at the time. When the volcanic sneeze exploded, with a sound like a cartoon character imitating a gun shot, Mum panda jumps and then looks straight into the camera as if to say, well, this is family viewing, but you get the drift. To be honest, I don’t known exactly what all this proves about the cosmic appeal of pandas beyond the fact that there’s a hell of a lot of people with time on their hands.
Veteran filmmakers Jenny Walsh and Lesley Hammond captured that footage at the Wolong Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas on mainland China while shooting a wildlife documentary. After the YouTube posting (which was done by someone else illegally) they must have thought they’d hit pay dirt. I’m assuming they were planning a more straightforward film – they’ve made a mini-industry out of non-fiction movies about pandas, often shooting, as here, in remote territories and coming back with exclusive material – but the power of social media intervened. Hammond has complained out loud and in public that Screen Australia knocked back financing the script for a live action feature that finally emerged as Sneezing Baby Panda – The Movie. The cultural gatekeepers found the pitch, a mockumentary about a zookeeper’s quest to find an attraction to save her zoo, as ‘uncommercial’ (whatever that means) and lacking in a three-act structure. This last point seems just nitpicking. Like I said, pandas are cute.
Hammond and Walsh aren’t lacking in chutzpah. They bravely assert (in the media kit) that this weird mutant of nature doco boilerplate, family-film fun, and pop culture satire is ‘David Attenborough meets Steven Spielberg’. As far as ad-line sells go, I’m assuming that’s a joke. But then the movie, as a movie, which is an Australian Chinese co-production, needs all the help it can get.
The film is narrated by Chi Chi, the little panda with the big sneeze, and is played by Jane Ubrien, a voiceover veteran of some distinction, but alas for this critic, her characterisation here has a charm by-pass (but so does the entire picture). Part of the problem is the witless script that fails to land a joke or create a spirit to invest in. But it’s the direction that kills it: Ubrien sounds like a besotted mummy doing funny sounds in a desperate effort to comfort a disgruntled toddler.
The other parts aren’t much better. Amber Clayton plays Marnie, the zoologist who heads off to China to bring back Chi Chi as a prize for her not quite bankrupt Aussie zoo. Her blissfully few dialogue scenes were reminiscent, in their dry, stilted, awkward quality, of a certain kind of cinema designed for adults only that I definitely didn’t want to think about while watching a kids movie. I don’t think I can fault the actor. She doesn’t have to do much more than look awed and seduced by the bumbling charms of pandas.
What distinguishes the film’s style is its faith in a kind of innocence that I associate with ‘60s kids TV aimed at very young audiences. (And not to be clever after the fact, but even watching re-runs in the late ‘70s I felt like I was being talked down to.) Which is to say that Hammond and Walsh have the adult performers affect a kind of wide-eyed fascination in everything while playing dumb. Thus Marnie’s ‘investigation’ in China here – in order to locate the seemingly hard-to-find Chi Chi – consists of walking up to strangers and asking, ‘Have you seen this panda?’
Hammond and Walsh do have a sense of whimsy. You might call it ‘cute-kitsch’. We’re treated to ‘insights’ into Chi Chi’s life on the reserve; dealing with a ‘bully’ (an aggressive panda) or trying to find a ‘girlfriend’ (take that one as read), as well as fantasy montage sequences tricked out with some (I’d guess) deliberately ropey looking digital effects where Chi Chi surfs, drives fast cars and climbs tall buildings like King Kong. For me, all this had the lasting joke appeal of party hats at Christmas time. But I suspect the movie’s target audience – aged under 10 years – might find it all very ticklish. But for rest of us who can dress ourselves… let’s just say you’ve been warned.
Stripped of it central gimmicks, the film has its buzz. The nature material is intimate, well shot and gripping, it’s message about the fragility of the environment urgent, loud and clear and the commentary on the history of China’s panda ‘cult’ (for want of a better word) compelling (if you can put up with the twee narration). The best moments for me were of the observational footage of the zoologists treating pandas in surgery. For these folks the work must be routine. But as they handled their fat furry patients, each seem to glow with delight. It’s the only time in the movie that gives rise to that rarest of feelings found in the very best family pictures: a sincere, unashamed sweetness.