Babies! They're adorable! What with their big eyes and their smooth skin and their happy smiles and their unrivaled feces-production capabilities. Babies! Am I right?
The documentary Babies asks the tough questions about human infants, questions such as: Aren't they cute? Seriously, would you look at them? How cute are they? Couldn't you just eat them up? The answers may surprise you.
Four infants from different corners of the globe are our entry points into the world of babydom. Ponijao, a boy, lives happily amid dirt and flies in the desert of Namibia. Bayarjargal, also a boy, is Mongolian. The fairer sex is represented by Mari, in Tokyo, and Hattie, in San Francisco. The filmmaker, Thomas Balmes, starts with their births (quite graphically, in one case), then observes them for about two years.
And, uh, that's it. Balmes makes no attempt to shape the footage into "stories" or "plots." He employs no narrator. When the babies' parents and caretakers speak in their native tongues, no subtitles are provided. Balmes' intent is not to interfere or interpret or direct, but merely to observe. That's admirable when you're documenting something dynamic or controversial. But without some nudging, babies don't DO anything. They coo, cry, laugh, gurgle, crawl, and toddle. And while that's pleasant to watch now and then, it gets tiresome when it lasts 80 minutes. The babies stay young, but the movie gets old fast.
Some of the cultural differences are interesting, though. There's an amusing contrast between the upscale urban lives of Mari and Hattie and the rural, primitive way Ponijao and Bayar are brought up. While Hattie's mother is at the pediatrician's office asking about SIDS and the right position for Hattie to sleep in, Ponijao's mother is squatting in the dirt, being pooped on by her naked baby, then wiping it off with a dry corncob. Mari is coddled by her mother at a play group, where jaunty baby songs are sung. Bayar is left unattended in a field of cattle.
Sure, the babies' interactions with their siblings and pets are occasionally amusing. If you trained a camcorder on your own baby for several hours, you'd capture events very much like these, though perhaps with less corncobbing. In fact, there is almost literally no difference between watching Babies and just watching a baby. Alfred Hithcock said drama is "life with the dull bits cut out." Babies is life with the dull bits intact.
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Eric D. Snider (website) refuses to buy anything less than a two-ply corncob.