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05/07/2010

Come on 'Babies,' light my fire

Call me a cinematic crybaby if you must, but I was expecting a little more from "Babies," the documentary chronicling the development of newborns around the world over a two-year period.

Maybe I've been spoiled by British filmmaker Michael Apted's brilliant growth-spurt study of British lads and lasses in the "Up" series, which drops in on the subjects every seven years to update their life stories.

Before I get run out of town for failing to cheer the innocent gurgles of newborns in San Francisco, Tokyo, Mongolia and Namibia of "Babies,"  however, know that French director Thomas Balmès successfully captures first gurgles, early crawling and shaky steps in four distinctively different environments.

It's an unusual documentary, though, because there's no interaction between the filmmaker and his subjects.  We see young personalities emerge somewhat, but never do the parents utter a word to the filmmaker about their relationship with their new child.

It's a bit like a visit to a human zoo, really.  We get closeup views of little Hattie in San Francisco being given all the comforts a U.S. child can enjoy.  That contrasts abruptly (in fact, a little shockingly at times) with Ponijao, the eighth of nine children of the Namibian family.

Ponijao might just be the happiest baby of the foursome featured.  And that's despite crawling around in dirt much of the time and competing with flies for mother's milk.  Yet no narrator verifies the happiness of an African family in an environment that will seem not only remote, but primitive to many viewers.

This was all the brainchild of French producer/actor Alain Chabat, who played Napoleon in  "Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian" last year.  Chabat, according to the film's press notes, thought it would be fascinating to watch vastly different newborns adjust to their surroundings, their families, their pets and the wide, wide world itself from the time they're born until they stand -- a little wobbly perhaps -- on their own feet.

I agree.  For some reason, however, the magic you might expect never really generates.  All four of the children are adorable, of course.  The awwwww factor is definitely present throughout.

But even as the Japanese and U.S. babies romp with their mommies in mother-child class groups and the two in the plains of Mongolia and a village in Namibia grow up in earthy, basic homes, the fascination level diminishes rapidly.

For all its promise, "Babies" makes 79 minutes feel like a near-eternity.  Let's put it this way.  The toddlers weren't the only ones who enjoyed a little nap time.

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