Universal // 2010 // 79 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // September 28th, 2010
...Babies. It's a documentary directed by Thomas Balmes (Waiting For Jesus) that portrays a year in the lives of four babies from different corners of the globe -- Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Tokyo, and Hattie from San Francisco -- to prove love overcomes all differences in child-rearing practices, making warm-and-fuzzy feelings the most effective parenting tool of them all. Or so the back of the DVD case tells me.
Everyone, barring robots or serial killers, loves babies. I love babies. Like you, I think they're cute and funny and fascinating, among other adjectives and adverbs. I assume, likewise, everyone understands the appeal of a documentary called Babies. Clearly there's a lot of adorable baby antics in the film, but does it live up to the epic cuteness the simple, provocative title implies?
Yes, it does. It really, really does. This is probably the cutest movie I've ever seen, distinguishing itself as the first and last word in baby cinema. You remember when ED-209 blasts his way through the executive Vice President in the boardroom scene of Robocop? That's what Babies does to all other baby-related family films. Look Who's Talking? Babies owns it. Rugrats Go Wild? Babies slashed its tires and stole its girlfriend. Baby's Day Out? Babies made it spontaneously combust with a single glance. Look Who's Talking Too? Babies makes it look like Look Who's Talking Now.
To give any of the cuteness away would be more or less spoiling the entire point of the film. If anything, that's kind of the problem. While Babies scores massive points as a heart melting disc of sanity-defying sweetness, its simplicity and lack of narrative may turn off fans expecting a traditional documentary.
Someone once said if you can watch a film without sound and still follow it, that film is perfectly realizing itself in the visual medium. Babies is a great example of this; granted, there's barely any story to tell. The film is merely a series of vignettes tracking the babies growth and interaction with the world around them from post-birth to pre-first-birthday. Encounters range from hilarious to tear-jerking to downright gross, scaling the minutia of baby life to a series of consistently adorable dramatic hurtles.
Babies style is what distinguishes it beyond the novelty of its subjects: the film's narrative is strictly focused on the babies. This means there is little dialogue, because, well, most of our subjects can barely coo. There is no narration to the film, but merely a whimsical series of French and Indie rock songs making up the soundtrack. While each of the babies' mothers (and a few fathers) are featured in the film, they aren't interviewed, nor is any of their dialogue subtitled -- since the babies have a low capacity for language, it doesn't matter what their parents are saying, but rather how they react to each baby and vice versa.
The choice works perfectly in the context of the film, allowing the documentary to transcend language barriers, ditch cumbersome subtitles, and view parenting as a sort of universal language. Art house fans will appreciate this clean, simple film and a short running time that ensures it never outstays its welcome. Your typical Blockbuster crowd might not be as forgiving, but then again, this is Babies we're talking about. You can't stay mad at Babies, unless, as previously suggested, you're a serial killer or a robot. Speaking of which, if you ever wondered if you were either a serial killer or a robot, this would be a good film to test your prospects.
If there is one problem I have with the film, it's that the director shows extreme partiality when it comes to his subjects. The more metropolitan Mari from Tokyo and Hattie from San Francisco clock in a lot less time than the rural Ponijao from Namibia and Bayar from Mongolia. It's clear the filmmakers believed the Ponijao and Bayar were more interesting to audiences based on their rougher lifestyle. Bayar shows us life-on-the-farm shenanigans, a kid whose daily habits include hanging out with his house cat and being cutely tormented by his older brother. Ponijao, likewise, is depicted in his scenes playing with bones or fighting with his brothers and sisters for the chance to breast feed. What are we given from Hattie and Mari? Um, baby classes. Mari plays with a CD at one point. Honestly, I can barely remember, as Ponijao and Bayar are consistently depicted as the more entertaining of the four -- happy-go-lucky kids with family lifestyles in sharp contrast to the mundane trappings of middle class hippy or Japanese yuppy cultures.
While amping up the entertainment factor, the choice subverts any chance the doc has of presenting itself as impartial. This might also aggravate discerning documentary film fans, who want more of a rigid juxtaposition between the metropolitan and rural babies, rather than some-half-assed implication that society-at-large is ruining their kids by not allowing them to live on the salt-of-the-earth. The idea that the filmmakers are somehow ranking children in terms of the entertainment value is manipulative and borders on amoral.
On the flip side of the argument, this isn't a scientific, environmental, or political documentary, it's Babies, and the mere fact I'm harping on the issue for what is basically a technically polished "baby home movie" is kind of ridiculous. For me, the entertainment card trumps a lack of balance between the film's baby stars, who all get their moments in the spotlight (even if some get it less than others). I'll let you guys decide for yourself whether or not the film justifies such choices...after you're done picking up pieces of your broken heart off the floor, 'cause Babies is gonna rip it out and smash it with a hammer made of love and warmth and cuddliness before you even have time to question its motives.
Before I go ahead and saddle this review with a "great for the whole family!" blurb, be warned the film contains a lot of nudity. It's referred to as "maternal nudity," e.g., breast feeding, bare-breasted African tribe mothers, and maybe a hot tub scene here and there (no joke). It's nothing you haven't seen on TV or the pages of National Geographic you kept under your bed when you were 10, but if your kid is as sensitive to nudity as mine is, you might want to wait until he or she is old enough to tolerate -- nay, appreciate the maternal nudity offered herein. You should probably be realistic and aim for "tolerate," though.
The film is presented in 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen that's absolutely stellar, perfectly complimenting the amazing cinematography the film has to offer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix certainly keeps up, just don't expect it to be tech demo quality or anything. Extra-wise, we're treated to Babies-Three Years Later and Everybody Loves...Your Babies Sweepstakes Winners. They probably clock in less than eight minutes collectively, and are pretty self explanatory based on the titles.
Babies are never guilty. Never!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Official Site