A message to IMAX filmmakers present and future: please just document stuff and stop trying to tell stories. There's no getting around it, I simply haven't seen a filmmaker able to make an enaging drama fit into a 30-40 minute feature. "China: The Panda Adventure" is another in an example of IMAX features that are lacking in drama, but heavy on the jaw-dropping visuals. In fact, the visuals here are often so incredible that I easily coasted along during the film's running time simply by watching the postcard-perfect scenery.
But, there is actually somewhat of a story. A docudrama about Ruth McCombs Harkness (Maria Bello), whose explorer husband died of a high fever while researching Pandas in the mountains of China. She ventures to collect his ashes, but ends up picking up the search for the pandas where her husband left off. This involves climbing up mountains and trying to outwit poacher Dakar Johnston (Xander Berkeley). Obviously, Johnston is the villian of the piece, but I found it particularly hilarious that the film needed to underline this fact with the score, which practically goes "bum bum BUM" when he first makes an appearance on-screen.
Bello was particularly good as the owner of the title bar in "Coyote Ugly", but she's a little too strangely perky here, climbing up the mountain with a rather silly grin that really doesn't seem logical in the situation. Ruth and the hunter must race one another in an attempt to get to the area where Ruth's husband was last studying the pandas. Occasionally dramatic when called upon, the film seems to instead be satisfied to present a Disney-ish tale, more for kids than adults.
There are several terrific scenes where the bears ramble around the forest and do their thing. These aren't animatronic bears or anything, they're real bears (although reportedly borrowed from a zoo) and they're quite fascinating to watch. In fact, they should have been the real stars of the picture instead. It would have really been nice to have simply had the creatures been released and filmed doing what they do instead of creating a bad melodrama around a few minutes of panda footage.
Again, the film's cinematography, presented on the stories-tall IMAX screen, is simply breathtaking. It at leasts provides some pleasant viewing in the middle of a story full of cliched dialogue and one-dimensional characters. The pandas are beautiful, peaceful creatures whose numbers are getting smaller, a documentary about their life and educating audiences further on their history would be something worthwhile, but unfortunately, "China: The Panda Adventure" focuses more on the humans instead.
While certainly not the worst IMAX feature I've seen in recent months, the high price of admission at IMAX theaters still makes this one hard to recommend, even with the stunning scenery and a few minutes of cute panda footage.
VIDEO: "China: The Panda Adventure" is presented by Warner Brothers in 1.33:1 full-frame. The picture quality is a mixed bag, but generally pretty good. Sharpness and detail ranges from fine to impressive, depending on the scene. Some close-ups are razor sharp, with good small object detail. Wider shots are generally crisp and well-defined, but some could look a tad softer than the rest.
The picture also showed inconsistent flaws. Some scenes looked crisp, "film-like" and clear, with nice depth to the image. Other scenes could look a bit grainy, and some shimmering was spotted. Colors were the one constant throughout the presentation, as they looked consistently well-saturated, rich and vivid.
SOUND: "China: The Panda Adventure" is presented by Warner Brothers in Dolby Digital 5.1. Unlike most IMAX fare, the film's soundtrack doesn't put the rear speakers to much use, only using them for some mild ambience on a few occasions and a handful of sound effects. Still, the audio has a nice front soundstage and audio quality is perfectly fine.
EXTRAS: A very brief (just over 5 minutes) featurette and an IMAX promo trailer.
Final Thoughts: "China: The Panda Adventure" is an absolutely beautiful IMAX movie, but its human drama takes the center stage when the pandas should be the focus. On the small screen, the film also loses some of the impact it had on the large IMAX screen. Warner Brothers has produced an alright DVD, with little in the way of supplements, but satisfactory audio/video quality. Rent it.