Babies is a lot like watching real infants: A strange mix of tediousness and marveling at the miracle of life. Critics warn that after an hour, "you might start to wonder why you've paid to see somebody else's home movies."
The concept behind the film, which opens today, is incredibly simple. French documentarian Thomas Balmès follows four infants through thier first year of life. The children are, Ponijao, from Namibia; Bayarjargal, from Mongolia; Mari, from Tokyo; and Hattie, from San Francisco. For 79 minutes we watch them going about the daily business of being a baby in their respective countries, from attending baby yoga in San Francisco, to trying to make sense of educational toys in Japan, to getting tethered to the family yurt in Mongolia. There's no narration in the film and there's no plot aside from the babies reaching various milestones and learning about the world around them, however different it may be.
Critics say the film is undeniably adorable — we are after all, hard-wired to find babies cute — but it may have benefited from a little more drama. One reviewer said a scene in which Mari attempts to put a stick through a toy donut is, "like watching the dawn of consciousness in two minutes," but she wanted even more of these moments. As Sadie put it earlier, "I feel drunk on infants. If that's possible. But the whole audience seems to be baby-drunk too."
Below, the reviews:
Some of the most riveting moments in this cinematic scrapbook are those most removed from American experience. Bayarjargal lies swaddled on his back, watching raptly as a colorful rooster parades around his bed, perilously close to stepping on the infant. When old enough to crawl, he fearlessly makes his way into a herd of cattle. No one is around to swoop him up. But the cows step around him and the boy obliviously ambles off. Ponijao exchanges a kiss with a roaming dog.
There is no narration and all the sound is ambient. The cinematographers (one of whom is father to one of the subjects, Hattie from San Francisco) keep their cameras at baby level. Drama is limited to a mislaid toy, while suspense lies chiefly in seeing just how patient a cat or a dog can be with a human child (very). It's a lulling style of filmmaking, likely to produce a happy hypnosis on the parts of people who are already parents or wish to be someday. Others may go insane with boredom; this is not a date-night movie for George Clooney. Balmes smartly ends it at 80 minutes, right when the premise starts to wear thin for even the biggest baby fans.
Crying, peeing, grinning, crawling (there's a brief crawling montage - the one such gimmick), the babies in Babies offer moments to cherish. Frankly, though, the film itself is kind of slack. I wish Balmès had found more scenes like the one in which the Japanese baby tries to shove a stick into a toy doughnut, falls on her back in wailing frustration, and then perseveres, and succeeds - it's like watching the dawn of consciousness in two minutes. As the movie goes on, these fleshy little beings turn into…well, people. And that's something to see. But Babies, without falsifying its subject, could have used a more soul-stirring sense of showbiz - that is, a riper display of infantile special effects.
Like the trailer that has been charming audiences for months, this is babyhood airbrushed to a high gloss. Squalls are few, colic doesn't exist, neither does disease, diaper rash or diapers at all for that matter as director Thomas Balmès traces the first year in the lives of four infants from four corners of the world. It is both a strength and a weakness that beyond the normal spills that come with sitting, crawling, walking and other early milestones, there is not one truly difficult moment that darkens the screen. If anything, the sweet-smelling Babies is the complete opposite of the conflict-riddled reality media world that dominates these days. The "awww" without the "shock" definitely makes Babies a very huggable movie experience, just not a primer on parenthood.
Babies is the perfect film for anyone who has never had the opportunity to interact with humans at an early age. You may never have had one, held one or baby-sat one, yet remained curious about the infants you see in a park, on the beach, or in baby carriers at the mall. Now a French documentarian has traveled to Africa, Asia and America to bring back charming footage of babies in their natural habitats. If, however, you've raised children and/or grandchildren, or had little brothers and sisters, the movie may resemble 79 minutes of unpaid baby-sitting. When Baby Mari starts screaming, you're wishing you could turn on the TV and use something bright and noisy as a distraction. But no, you're at a movie. However, maybe Babies may be fascinating viewing for babies, just as many dogs and cats have their favorite programs. At last, here's programming for the Mommy & Me screenings.
A group portrait of infants coming of age in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, Babies is a mesmerizing and weirdly manipulative experience, combining wide-eyed innocence and shrewd cultural commentary as it chronicles the folkways and familial rites of four starkly different societies. While two affluent couples in Tokyo and San Francisco raise their daughters with plenty of age-appropriate accouterments and New Age earnestness, a little boy on the Mongolian steppe shares his bath water with a goat, and a girl growing up in a tiny African village learns how to pound red clay from the dirt. But Babies resolutely refuses to judge, at least explicitly, instead suggesting that privilege and deprivation — at least by Western standards — are relative.
Still, as an advertisement for the wonders of figuring out how to be alive, the movie is an engaging proposition. When the film isn't oscillating among its subjects, it's partially juxtaposing images. In California, Hattie's dad takes a shower with her. In Namibia, Ponijao's mother licks her clean. Balmès's approach is averse to cuteness for its own sake and watchful enough to leave you time to wonder about how you'd feel spending the first year of your life with a camera in your face.
Just about any family in high-rise Tokyo or big-city America would look wanting compared to the neurosis-free rhythms of the Namibian and Mongolian clans (a raging case of sibling rivalry in the yurt notwithstanding). It's the difference between the open sky and the collective squall at a crowded Tokyo child-care center. The contrast is especially sharp when considering the gingerly and seemingly doctrinaire approach of the U.S. baby's parents. Ponijao plays with a bone in the dirt and drinks out of a stream. In Mongolia, Bayarjargal sits among his family's cattle. In San Francisco, Hattie's mother chants "The Earth Is Our Mother" and reads parenting books, and her father runs a lint-roller over her onesie.
Say this for Babies: No one can leave complaining they didn't get what the title promised. Conceptually, a documentary about babies doing stuff could be fairly seen as either brilliant in its simplicity-after all, "everyone loves babies," as the tagline proclaims-or completely inane for the same reason. The French team of director Thomas Balmés and producer Alain Chabat go for something between poetry and anthropology, a near-wordless reverie about four infants from four different parts of the world, roughly covering their development from birth to first steps. But for all its pictorial beauty, this thumb-sucking Koyaanisqatsi is neither poetic nor behaviorally fascinating enough to justify the experiment. If anything, blame the kids: They're all adorable, roly-poly delights, but the first year of life has its natural limitations.
The kids are absolutely charming, and each scene is beautifully shot. But there is no narrative thread, and the minimal social observations are blindingly obvious. So after about an hour of watching four children eat, bathe and crawl, you might start to wonder why you've paid to see somebody else's home movies.
It offers no advice or analysis, no talking-head rumination or voice-over explanation. The occasional snippets of grown-up dialogue are not accompanied by subtitles, which would be superfluous in any case. (But wouldn't you love to know how to coo "who's a good baby?" in Mongolian?) Babies is exactly what its title promises. It's babies. And if you love babies you will find it very hard not to love Babies. Is it that simple? I mean, who doesn't love babies? Why isn't this just a smattering of YouTube videos ("Baby Pulls Cat's Tail," "Baby Eats Banana," etc.) stitched together into a feature film and accompanied by a peppy musical score? That's kind of what it is, but the utter accessibility of the movie - even babies will enjoy watching Babies! - results as much from Mr. Balmès's canny formal intelligence as from the intrinsic adorability of his subjects.
Earlier: The Babies Movie, Minute-By-Minute