When reviewing movies we typically approach it by breaking down the plot, going into what we felt worked and didn’t work, what extras are included on the home release and so on. With Pandas, the 2018 documentary film for IMAX, that would be a fruitless endeavour. At around 40 minutes it’s less than half as long as most of what we cover, and there are no actors or even a person to focus on. Instead, it’s all about, you guessed it, pandas.
Specifically, a panda cub named Qian Qian, who is selected from the Chengdu Panda Base in China for integration into the wild. The process is complicated, so the scientists there enlist the help of Ben Kilham, a man from the northeastern United States that has been doing similar work with black bears. Together they try to create a program that will prepare Qian Qian, who was born and raised in captivity, for life in the Sichuan province.
Narrated by Kristen Bell, Pandas isn’t as focused on being cute as you might expect. Yes, of course there are plenty of adorable moments as the baby pandas waddle and tumble, munch and romp. The film spends a fair amount of time with the scientists as well, however, listening to them discuss methods and the challenges a panda born in captivity will face. This brings our second American scientist into the mix in the person of Jake Owens.
While listening to the scientists discuss Qian Qian is fine, it’s not as fun as just sitting back and watching the panda simply be a panda. The pairing with some silly music (like ZZ Top‘s “Sharp Dressed Man”) is good for a chuckle or two, but again, we would’ve signed off on more pure panda activity over bear training — as you’d suspect, most of the films best scenes are the bears (yes, that includes the black bears) doing cute and/or funny stuff.
There’s some late drama as well, as the transition to the wild isn’t as successful as the team had hoped, forcing Owens to return to China (after a contrived scene of him running and then “getting the phone call”) to track down Qian Qian. The film never really clues you in as to what went wrong, or what the results mean for the future, but suffice to say the effort to acclimate Qian Qian wasn’t a rousing success.
Pandas isn’t nearly as cutesy as the trailer would have you believe, and it lacks a truly uplifting ending, but it’s still suitable for kids and has plenty of awwwwww moments.