China: The Panda Adventure

on June 09, 2001 by Francesca Dinglasan
   Shot in the lush green landscape of China's Wolong Nature Reserve and the rocky turf along the Yangtze River, "China: The Panda Adventure's" most gratifying moments are the larger-than-life depictions of these breathtaking settings, unseen by most Western eyes. Unfortunately, the spectacle provided by the large-screen format is largely wasted on the movie's schmaltzy storyline about Ruth Harkness' ("Coyote Ugly's" Maria Bello) search for the Giant Panda, with far too little of the already limited screen time devoted to the wondrous animal.

   Based on the true-life tale of American dress designer Harkness, who in 1936 was the first person ever to bring a live Giant Panda to the West, the movie opens with the desolate seamstress' arrival in Shanghai to retrieve the ashes of her deceased adventurer husband William Harkness. In his journals, William had left detailed accounts of having glimpsed the elusive and gentle Giant Panda, inspiring Ruth to continue her late husband's quest to study the creature up close. Time, however, is not on the couturier-turned-explorer's side, since she must race hunter Dakar Johnston (Xander Berkeley), whose goal is to hunt down the beautiful black-and-white creature.

   Children, who seem to be the target audience of "China," are less likely to mind the simplistic narrative than their parents, but all age groups are sure to take note of the minimal amount of time that's actually devoted to the Great Panda. It's quite a shame, too, considering how much the frolicsome and loving cubs and their doting mama bear light up every inch of the 70-foot-high screen during their fleeting scenes. Nonetheless, families could do a lot worse than spending an afternoon catching momentary views of China's awe-inspiring forests and the endangered species that lives deep within them, forgiving--if only temporarily--the silly, though, entirely harmless drama that ends up dominating the movie.    Starring Maria Bello, Xander Berkeley and Xia Yu. Directed by Robert M. Young. Written by Jeanne Rosenberg. Produced by Antoine Compin and Charis Horton. An IMAX release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 50 min.

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