Review: 'Babies'

(Four stars)

The French documentary "Babies," directed and filmed mostly by Thomas Balmes, occupies a niche somewhere between "awww!" and ethnology -- a niche filled with delight and visual beauty.

The film's babies are four: Ponijao from Namibia's traditional Himba tribe; Bayarjargal, from Mongolia; Mari from Tokyo; and Hattie from San Francisco (actually Oakland, but San Francisco sounds more glamorous). The movie follows each baby from birth to about 18 months, when they're all able to stand and walk. Sort of.

The camera observes each baby's activities, moving from one to another in no particular order. Ponijao and her many siblings play in the dirt, which they sometimes eat, or at least put in their mouths. Bayarjargal, the only boy in the group, plays outdoors near the family's yurt, often alone or among the family's goats and cows.

Both Mari and Hattie have heaps of toys and books and are taken to parks and baby exercise classes (as if babies didn't move around enough on their own). Despite their different environments, all of the tots are loved and cuddled, and they all seem healthy.

The babies all interact with animals in one way or another. Three of the families (the Namibian one is the exception) have cats, who get on just fine with the babies. There's also a rooster that strolls on the Mongolian child's bed, dogs that lick the African child's face, and many goats, cows and donkeys, though not in Tokyo or Oakland.

What's missing -- praises be! -- is any narration or subtitles. There's music, but it's subtle and unintrusive.

Did I mention the amusing moments, as when Bayarjargal amuses himself by unrolling and chewing on a roll of toilet paper? Or when the goat drinks the little boy's bath water? Or when two babies smear each other with food?

Comparisons are hard to avoid, though the film never hammers them home. The Third-World kids are messier but have more freedom and are more in tune with the natural world -- even though the California mother takes little Hattie to a play group where the leader chants: "The Earth is our mother. She will take care of us."

Just in time for Mother's Day.

Rated PG for "cultural and maternal" nudity. 1 hour, 20 minutes.

— Renata Polt

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