DVD Review: Babies

by | Sep 30th, 2010 | 8:30PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

An entire documentary that’s just four infants being mind-blowingly cute could come off as a cheap stunt. (What’s next, a film called Kittens in Hats Falling Asleep?) Luckily Babies balances the cute with compelling cultural insights.

BabiesSure, watching human babies gambol and cavort is entertaining and aww-inspiring. After all, infant mammals are big-eyed and cute for an evolutionary reason: so their parents are less inclined to eat them. But in his documentary Babies, French filmmaker Thomas Balmès has some cultural observations to make aside from just wallowing in Cutesville.

Babies follows four infants for about a year, from birth to their first toddlings. Two rural tots: Ponijao from Opuwo, Namibia, in the desert brushlands of Africa, and Bayar from the steppes of Bayanchandmani, Mongolia. And two big-city girls: Mari from Tokyo and Hattie from San Francisco. There are no interviews, no voice-over narration, and not a lot of dialogue—we see and hear the children’s parents from time to time, but often they’re like the grown-ups in Peanuts cartoons, wah-wah-wahing from just off-screen.

That leaves us with the babies center stage at all times and carrying out a nonstop parade of really adorable and very funny baby things. Playing with animals, such as house cats… or goats and roosters; fending off ambushes from older siblings; crawling and eventually dancing. In fact, the storyline of Babies is very cliché, simplistic and predictable: Babies are born and then they grow up. Come on, who didn’t see that coming?

But while Babies sometimes veers close to a Puppy Party video, its “nature film” quality is intentional—Balmès wants to approach human infants as a strange remote species to be observed in the wild. And what makes the film interesting, once the cuteness overload simmers down, is the cultural differences and similarities his camera captures.

There’s no doubt that for many Western viewers the Mongolian and African scenes are the most fascinating, the most distant from our upbringings. Bayar grows up in a warmly comfortable rug-covered yurt tent on wind-swept Mongolian plains, brought home from the hospital on the back of a motorcycle and taught to crawl among cows and goats. (Though being raised by Mongolian herders doesn’t seem that much different from the childhoods of our parents and grandparents who grew up on American farms in the first half of the last century.) Ponijao’s life is entirely pre-industrial, even pre-agricultural, her home a mud and stick hut.

Oh, Baby Baby

Babies’ strength is that it doesn’t take a distanced, haughty anthropological view, but instead quietly focuses on how much alike the lives of human babies are—despite radically different social, cultural and economic environments.

At the same time, Balmès is not above making some pointed cultural observations via editing. San Francisco Hattie and her crunchy, sensitive yuppie parents are in the film primarily for contrast: We’ll see her mother asking a doctor about SIDS, then cut to Ponijao’s mother tending to her with home remedies and methods, far removed from any official medical care. There’s Hattie in a backyard Jacuzzi, then Ponijao splashing in a mud puddle. We watch Hattie and Mari in “structured play classes” and “baby yoga” sessions, then jump to Bayar happily playing underfoot among the livestock.

As we see Hattie and her parents chanting in a classroom about Mother Earth then cut to Ponijao and her family living smack dab in the exposed middle of Mother Earth, the message is clear: Parents in developed countries are probably a little overprotective, overachieving, and over-sincere about their offspring, but no matter where you go, most people love their children.

Babies occasionally teeters on the edge of a novelty film, but Balmès’ honest interest in the various cultures of child-rearing and the cross-cultural nature of maternal love keeps the film from being overwhelmed by cuteness without sacrificing genuine joy.

That said, ideally any documentary should teach you stuff. Here are five things I learned from Babies:

  1. Babies are cute.
  2. Babies with animals are just ridiculously cute.
  3. If you must have a sibling, try your hardest to be born first.
  4. Babies talk a lot, but really don’t say much.
  5. There will be pee.

Babies is available on DVD from redbox.


More Baby Time from redbox:

19 Responses to “DVD Review: Babies

  1. Fiirvoen
    Posted on October 1, 2010 at 9:25 am

    You missed an f in off in your intro blurb.

  2. Erika Olson

    Posted on October 1, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Yep, I was editing it as your comment came through!

    - Erika

  3. Colette
    Posted on October 4, 2010 at 9:49 am

    This is a really great movie, how inventive. Its funny how all babies are so similar no matter where they are growing up. It really does show just what is important in life!

  4. pat
    Posted on October 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Rushed to get this today – not available at my Redbox!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 7:25 am

    My children and I LOVED this movie. I plan on renting it again. It is great to not have someone talking in the background through the whole movie and just letting the movie speak for itself.

  5. teresa
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 7:59 am

    sounds interesting and fresh. think we’ll try it.
    oh, and if we’re cleared to help edit the narrative, then is the phrase ‘awe-inspiring’ meant to say “AWW” (as in ‘how cute?’) or is it misspelled?
    like it either way!

  6. Oshun Irie
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I have been looking forward to seeing this. I cant wait to get this!
    Jah bless!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 8:09 am

    I am so happy to see this is finally out. I’ve been waiting since seeing it on Oprah a very long time ago. Thanks for letting me know it’s finally available, I’m buying for gifts, especially to new mothers.

    Really, someone had to take the time to mention the lack of an “f”? Amazing.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 8:20 am

    I was very excited to see this movie available at my local Redbox. As a new mother myself, it was very adorable. It just goes to show that babies, no matter where they are born, are the same. My 1 year old also enjoyed watching Babies and hearing the familiar cooing sounds.

  7. Ty
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 8:44 am

    It was great for my daughter to see how other people live, how they are raise, good as a “count your blessings” movie and as a realization that those people have less materialistic worries as we do. Other than that so slow!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Ponijao is a girl, not a boy. It was a great movie and my 7 month old was very attracted to the babies.

  8. Carol
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    My three daughters and I watched Babies on Saturday. I could not take my eyes off the screen. The reviewer was being nice calling San Francisco mom “crunchy.” I thought neurotic, hippy, helicopter. . .

  9. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Ruth, you are exactly right — my mistake! Corrected now — thanks for the catch!

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Sandy Fackler
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    I think such movies also help us to get back to looking at other cultures and races as HUMAN, an important step in getting the West to realize that not all other nationalities and races are terrorists. Viva la similarities.

    Another thing you should have learned from the film is that all human babies develop at approximately the same rate whether they have baby yoga classes or not.

  10. marisa lorick
    Posted on October 5, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    My kids are all teenagers and older now, however, i do feel like this would be an enjoyable and fun movie to watch. Something about babies, and their childlikeness that is healing, and even enlightening. Sometimes we need to be reminded of simplicity, and how freeing it can be. I haven’t seen this yet, but will, and thanks for making it.

  11. Richard
    Posted on October 6, 2010 at 1:44 am

    I hated this. waste of money. it’s realistic, but too sad for people to videotape and not do anything about it. there isnt enough talking either

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on October 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    loved the movie, embarrassed to say that my kids and I weren’t prepared for all the nudity, we are apparently more modest than most. Had some awkward silences.

  12. L
    Posted on October 9, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    love the review. haven’t seen the movie but like the review. :)

  13. Terry
    Posted on October 13, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    not worth 1 cent