‘Babies’: Cute factor cuts across cultures

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, May 6, 2010 12:05pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

It’s hard to know whether to chide filmmaker Thomas Balmes for making a movie about something so obvious, or credit him for making a movie about something so obvious.

“Babies” is a documentary look at the first year of life for four infants from different parts of the world: Africa, the U.S., Mongolia and Japan. With no narration, the film cuts back and forth between these very different locales.

Let us pause and consider the surefire aspects of this set-up. Will the babies coo and smile and beam? Yes. Will they pee at inappropriate times? Yes. Will they totter on chubby legs and fa-down-go-boom? Of course.

In short, there are certain built-in hilarities about this premise that make it a rather simple (you might almost say infantile) project. Babies are funny and the movie proves this for the umpteenth time.

Presumably Balmes and his French crew also had some other intent in creating “Babies,” especially with its diverse settings. Is the intent to show how different the cultures of the world are, or to show how fundamentally similar child development is, regardless of the circumstances?

Since the film doesn’t tell us what to conclude, you can decide that. For the family in San Francisco, baby’s upbringing includes the nicest toys, as well as classes in what looks like New Age yoga for kids.

For the baby in Namibia, things are a little different, as flies buzz around the family hut and an old tin cup is a plaything. Life is similarly uncomplicated in Mongolia, where a yurt in the middle of the steppes is surrounded by unpopulated grasslands on all sides.

The baby in Tokyo is living the urban life in a slightly different way from the American kid, although maybe not different enough to make this section as interesting as the African or Mongolian parts.

That’s one of the problems with “Babies”: The rural sections are much more flavorful and intriguing than the city-based stories, which seem familiar and sort of pedestrian by contrast. Whatever the sociological implications of this comparison, it’s a letdown whenever we cut back to the polite San Francisco couple, that’s for sure.

There’s surely an audience for “Babies,” and with the music by Bruno Coulais (he did “Winged Migration” and “Oceans”) nudging the viewer at every juncture, you can hardly miss how cute it all is. Or maybe you can, depending on your tolerance for an extended variation on “America’s Funniest Home Videos — Baby Edition.”

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