As high concepts go, "Babies" is a doozy. It may do for babies what "March of the Penguins" did for penguins. It's a documentary about four babies, chosen from around the world, from birth to their first toddling steps. There are many things one can say about this film but, essentially, it all comes down to one word: Awwww.
French film director Thomas Balmes and his producer Alain Chabat – who is credited with the film's "original idea" – began by scouring the globe for people who were genuinely happy to be having a child. (How did they determine this?) The goal was to make "a wildlife film on human babies," and they finally found their families, or more precisely, their pregnant mothers, in 2006. Filming for the next two years, Balmes shuttled across the continents.
The lead players are anything but camera-shy, although Balmes is careful not to show us shots of babies peering into the lens. There's big-eyed Ponijao, who lives in Namibia with her extended family in the Himba tribe. Bayar, from Mongolia, is tormented by his older brother and likes cows. Mari, who throws one of the great tantrums in movies when she can't figure out a puzzle, lives with her family in Tokyo; Hattie is with her parents in San Francisco. The predominately female roster is pure coincidence – Balmes chose the mothers before they gave birth.
Despite my best intentions, I found myself playing the Who's Cutest game. Not fair, but unavoidable. To this Westerner's eyes, the more "exotic" babies were the most fascinating. But what are we learning here really? To anyone who has raised a child, or been around one for very long, there's nothing in this movie that smacks of revelation. It's not like you sit back and go, "Hey! Babies like to hit things?!" Balmes has taken a resolutely middlebrow approach to babydom, and I often wished he had a bit more Jean Piaget and lot less Disney in his soul.
He's so carried away by the film's high concept that he doesn't allow his camera to linger very long on any one baby. He scurries back and forth, tying the footage together with rudimentary matchups – baby plays with toys, baby cries, baby stands up. Especially in the Namibian and Mongolian scenes, I longed for him to just hold the setting for a while and allow us to sink into the differentness of it all. Because, of course, the more "exotic" these situations seem at first, the more familiar they become. Children, basically, are children. It's not much of a message but neither is it false to experience.
What does appear somewhat false is the glibness of the enterprise. We rarely see anything harrowing, we don't see sickness, and fathers are almost entirely left out of the picture. I realize that Balmes is merely recording what was in front of him, but I find it difficult to believe that all four babies, or their parents, lived such comparatively halcyon lives. Balmes is pushing a beatific vision of childhood that is deeply enjoyable and also deeply suspect. Imagine if, say, Michael Apted of the "28 UP" series had gotten ahold of these children and these families. Balmes has made, as he intended, a wildlife documentary about human babies, except there isn't much wildlife on view. "Babies" is a celebration of the gloriously mundane. Like I said, Awwww. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for cultural and maternal nudity throughout.)