Born in China

Born in China Honors a Legacy that Began with Walt Disney

By Beth Deitchman

An over-protective panda and her first-born, spirited cub, determined to express her independence… A young golden monkey, navigating a new family dynamic following the birth of his baby sister… A courageous snow leopard struggling for her family’s survival in one of the harshest, most unforgiving environments on Earth. These are the stories that are told in Disneynature’s Born in China—opening in theaters this Friday—and, producer Roy Conli tells D23, are the stories the animals gave to the filmmakers. “Anyone who owns a dog knows that animals have their own personalities, and as you track these amazing creatures [during Born in China], you understand that they each have a personality of their own. They have a life force that’s driving them, and they have relationships within their family and in structures outside the family that are pretty magic,” he says, adding, “The footage is a gift that you’re able then to present to the world in an entertaining, exciting and, hopefully, educational way, as well.”

Roy Conli

Born in China is directed by acclaimed Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan (The Last Supper, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe), who Conli refers to as “a master storyteller.” Lu Chuan had to approach the incredible true stories of the animals in Born in China a bit differently than the other films he’s directed. “For a feature film, you use your imagination and create everything from a blank page,” he says. “Disneynature films are character-driven stories, but the characters are the animals. So the story comes from the footage and is inspired by the lives these animals lead.”

Born in China

The film chronicles a year in the lives of these very different animals and presents their stories in compelling, emotional, and, above all, very relatable ways. Ya Ya the panda is a first-time mom, trying to balance her daughter Mei Mei’s first steps toward independence with her own maternal instincts to keep the young panda close and safe. Tao Tao, a young golden monkey, feels like a second-class citizen in his family after his parents welcome a baby sister. Dawa, a snow leopard mother, braves the elements and dangerous predators to provide for her cubs in a challenging terrain. “Each story depicts a reality of life that is reflective of our own human experience,” Conli says. “It’s compelling to see how animals share certain values that we hold dear.”

Born in China

Conli, a longtime producer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, has been involved with some pretty amazing animated stories, including Tangled and Big Hero 6, and he talked about the differences in bringing real emotion to the big screen in an animated tale versus a True Life Adventure. “[In animation,] you start from scratch—it’s whole cloth. You start crafting a script, moving forward, doing designs. Next thing you know, you start screening it and you eventually animate it and then it’s there,” he explains. “With [Born in China], we’re actually handed footage with massive amounts of journaling, with massive amounts of story that actually happened on location, and now we need to go in and compile that in a way that reflects what the True Life Adventure was.

“You don’t have to look for the story—the animals give that to you,” Conli notes.

Born in China

Disney films have entertained audiences with real stories about real animals since the 1948 release of Seal Island, the first of Walt’s 13 True-Life Adventures, and the films from Disneynature continue that legacy—as well as the legacy of conservation here at Disney. Through donations tied to opening week attendance, Disneynature supports environmental initiatives connected to their films. Moviegoers who see Born in China during its opening week (from April 21–27) can help support the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to help protect wild pandas and snow leopards.

Conli is honored to part of a tradition that dates back to Walt. “I think that one of the reasons I was interested in being part of Born in China was that legacy,” he shares. “I’m very lucky, in the sense that I work in animation and now being able to work in nature filmmaking—it’s like the best of all Disney.”