Trail of the Panda (2009) Directed by Zhong Yu
For its first made-in-China movie, Disney takes a box-office-success formula (cute child plus cute mammal baby) and customizes it to the region: environmental-protection spokescreature and WWF icon the giant panda (a baby one!) rolling around in bamboo with a human almost-baby in some of Sichuan's scenic areas? Is it even possible to increase the cuteness factor?
Maybe not, but you'd still have to be a die-hard pandamentalist child (of no more than 8, if we're being charitable to the film) in order to like this movie. Seemingly mute orphan boy Lu rescues an injured panda cub named Pang Pang ("Little Chubby"—awwww!) from the clutches of the evil and greedy panda hunters. Lu and Pang Pang become fast friends; Lu hides the panda from the hunters, works diligently to find out what the picky panda will eat (doesn't everybody know pandas eat only bamboo?), and, once their tight bond has been established, Lu miraculously begins to speak!
The film's downfall is not just its many plot holes and primitive, linear, and redundant storyline—it's mostly the fact that making a feature movie with a panda cub in the lead role is almost impossible. With the panda's status as an endangered species and China's cultural icon, it can't legally be trained to do much, and so it seemed the movie production went something like this: 1) Drop black-and-white hairball into a scene and wait until there's movement (given the panda's reputation, this probably took some time). 2) Film like crazy while child star Daichi Harashima—who is not even a native Mandarin speaker—explains the panda's movements in short monologues. 3) Hand footage over to script writer. 4) Script writer imagines story around the panda's "movements," if you can call them that. (In contrast, Whale Rider, which features a whale and a Maori girl somehow ended up being a decent movie—go figure).
You could give the crew credit considering the difficulties it faced—a naturally uncooperative panda cub, an 8.0-magnitude quake destroying the set of Wolong and killing the starring panda's real-life mother during the last month of filming, a non-supporting actor, and so forth—but in the end, excuses don't make up for the fact that all this movie has going for it is the "awwww" factor.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 38 ("bad taste").