Bottom line: Adorable babies and a genuinely good documentary, if you’re looking for substance. Only avoid if you have a low cuteness tolerance.
Babies is an hour and 19 minutes of pure maternal (and paternal, if the delighted giggling and cooing of the male critics in the press screening are any indication) instinct projected on screen, completely justifying its Mother’s Day weekend opening. But aside from the immense cuteness of the film’s four stars (which is a huge aside — they’re all damn adorable), Babies succeeds in being an excellent cultural documentary.
It would have been easy to create the fluff film the source material lends itself to, and, for the first several minutes of the babies’ screen time, Babies appears to have done just this. This is an illusion, created by the cloud of cuteness that envelops and entrances the audience (that cuteness beginning, of course, after a short sequence of tastefully shot birthing scenes, in which our stars are brought into the world).
Our first introduction to the babies after birth occurs in their respective hospitals or birthing centers. This immediately defines the cultural differences that will be teased out in the film. Hattie (a towhead cutie from San Francisco) and Mari (an absolutely adorable girl from Tokyo) are born in westernized, modern hospitals, while Bayer (from Mongolia) is born in a more rural birthing center and Ponijao (from Namibia) is born in a hut in her village.
The best thing about Babies as a documentary is that it allows its subjects to speak for themselves, even though they can’t actually speak. The movie features absolutely no narration, interviews or subtitles. The only title cards come during our first introduction to the babies and give only the children’s names and cities of birth. Even the parents are nameless and never address the audience (and thank God, since this would take away valuable minutes of baby watching).
This is where Babies’ strength lies — the audience is invited to view the cultures through the lens of the children growing up in them. We learn by immersion rather than explanation. This approach works so well because we are learning both with and through the babies. We learn about aspects of each culture for the first time with the babies, but are also able to draw comparisons. Everything, even commonplace American traditions, seem somehow fresh.
Watching Babies, your instinct is to marvel at the strange child-rearing customs, particularly in Mongolia and Namibia. Some of what they do — letting infants play, largely unsupervised with livestock and rocks, for example — seems to cross the line from “strange” to “dangerous.” You’ll want to reach out and save the babies from any potential harm. What Babies does, though, is follow these images of Bayer and the family chicken or young Ponijao playing with sharp rocks closely by something like Californian Hattie playing gleefully in a door bouncer (for those of you unfamiliar with these devices, they’re essentially lightweight car seats attached to the top of an open doorway by bungee cords; you place the baby inside the seat and their instinct is to jump as much as possible until you take them out). Suddenly, familiar customs seem just as strange as those occurring halfway across the globe.
In the end, Babies will appeal primarily to two demographics of people: cuteness connoisseurs who relish in the likes of PuppyCam and documentary film enthusiasts, who will appreciate its unique storytelling model. I suspect, however, that much of the latter group may miss the film, expecting it to be entirely geared toward the former constituency. Though members of these two groups may not be sharing the theaters for Babies, the film should satisfy both, as it succeeds in walking a fine line between commercial cuteness appeal and insightful cultural documentary.