Universal // 2010 // 79 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // September 28th, 2010
Everybody loves babies.
Although modern technology has brought people from all over the world closer together, major cultural differences still exist. There is at least one universal experience, however -- one that transcends economy, language, and geography. And it is the subject of French documentarian Thomas Balmès's 2010 film, Babies.
Babies follows four children from birth to first steps: Ponijao, living in a small village in Namibia; Bayar, whose family owns a farm on the plains of Mongolia; Mari, in bustling Tokyo; and Hattie, in San Francisco.
Babies is simple in concept. Film four babies over the course of a year and use the footage to make a documentary. The film is presented just as simply. The director doesn't insert himself into the movie. His cameras film what happens, and that's it. There is no story to speak of, and no attempt to manufacture one.
Babies is a documentary in a literal sense. It is a film made up of candid, everyday moments. Imagine watching the home movies of four families you've never met; that's pretty much what you get here. Babies is elevated above random home videos, though, by the artistry with which Balmès shoots and edits together those otherwise insignificant moments.
Watching Babies made me feel like the world's most uptight father. If little Ponijao can crawl around naked in the dirt of Africa, drinking water out of shallow streams and chewing on random animal bones on the ground, maybe I shouldn't freak out when my daughter puts a leaf in her mouth. Given the ability of parents with relatively little to raise happy, healthy children, are the gadgets and doodads sold at Babies 'R Us really necessary?
Babies raises those questions, but it doesn't attempt to answer them. After all, those are western questions, asked by an American middle-class dad. Babies is a universal film. It is told through images. There are no voiceovers. No talking at all, in fact, save the occasional interjection of a parent or bystander, and even then it's all background noise.
The "story" of Babies is that, from the poorest of countries to the wealthiest, from the most unsanitary living conditions to the cleanest, babies are babies. They are born. They cry. They need food, and warmth, and love. (Clothing, it turns out, is optional.) Through the course of the film, we see four babies going through similar experiences under very different circumstances, and parents using what they have at their disposal to care for them.
Babies is beautifully shot. This isn't rough-looking home video. It's glorious widescreen footage rich in color and full of detail, especially in this 1080p Blu-ray transfer. From the red-hued dust of Namibia to the towering high-rises of Tokyo, Babies is a visual feast. There's some minor edge enhancement and a few instances where details get lost in shadows, but the overall visual quality puts this in league with some of the best the high-definition format has to offer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is just as rich, combining ambient noise with Bruno Coulais's score. The movie is on par with something like Planet Earth, and not just on a visual level. You could argue that Balmès has made a nature documentary, trading lions and polar bears for toddlers and their mommies. You could also argue that, like Planet Earth, Babies would have been better if it was narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
Babies may be a gorgeous film with universal appeal, but the lack of narration gets tiring after a while, for me about halfway through its already short 79-minute run time. Babies requires the viewer to make all of the connections -- to do all of the analysis normally provided by the documentarian. Babies has a wonderful story to tell about this most basic of human experiences. It's too bad that Balmès didn't exert any effort to put that experience in context.
It is also worth noting that there is a lot of nudity in the film, described by the MPAA as "cultural and maternal." None of it is gratuitous or out-of-place, but if you care about that kind of thing you should know ahead of time.
Babies on Blu-ray comes BD-Live enabled, so there may be more bonus features available in the future, but there are only two on the disc. "The Babies -- Three Years Later" is a short featurette that follows the director as he returns to visit his now four-year-old subjects, and to show the movie to their families. "Everybody Loves...Your Babies Sweepstakes Winners" is a collection of winning baby photos from an online contest. As with the film, the extras lack context. Where's the making-of featurette, showing how the director and his crew actually filmed these babies and their parents for over a year?
Though it may be as straightforward as its title, Babies is beautiful in its simplicity. On Blu-ray, the stunning cinematography and cultural diversity elevate the everyday, underscoring the film's universal message. The joy of watching these babies grow and change is dampened only by the lack of any real narrative. They sure are cute, though.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG