Cute Can Only Get You So Far
If there was ever such a thing as a critic-proof documentary, it has to be Babies. People that don't like babies, that have never had babies, or have absolutely no interest in babies probably couldn't be paid to sit through the documentary. On the other hand, people who have had babies, adore babies, or reflexively awwwww at every baby they see almost certainly believe that they'll love Babies.
I'm not so sure, though. I took it upon myself to review Babies because I'm the site's resident softie, because I somewhat recently had one, and because I can safely confess to digging babies. All the same, I didn't care for Babies. It's hard to believe such a thing about what is essentially an 80-minute video poem to 'lil ones, but all the best bits were in the trailer. The other 78 minutes of filler material felt like watching someone else's home videos. Once you've gotten, "Hey. That's a cute baby," out of your system, the documentary doesn't have much else going for it. Yes, they're adorable. But they don't really do any tricks. Granted, if you're into beautiful static cinematography and an interminable series of Hallmark close-ups of babies, you might get a little more mileage out of the documentary than I did.
Indeed, there's no dialogue, no story, no conflict, and no explosions in Babies. The most intense moment of the entire film comes in wondering if a baby goat is going to react violently to the rough treatment a Mongolian tyke is giving it (it doesn't). Everything else in the documentary is just: Look. A baby. It's crawling. Or, it's babbling. Or, it's breastfeeding. Or, it just picked up a bone off the ground and is chewing on it. Is that safe, and why isn't his mother trying to stop it?
Babies follows four infants from different parts of the world from birth until they're walking (precariously). There's one from Namibia, one from Mongolia, one from Tokyo, and one from San Francisco. We watch as they feed, they play, and they cry. There's no narration, no structure, and even the score is sporadic. It's just babies, man.
Moreover, for those under the assumption that Babies will offer some insight into child-rearing in other cultures or even act as a gentle critique of baby-raising methods in America, it doesn't really do that, either. The setting is different for each baby, as are their playthings, but their actions are remarkably similar. One plays in a park; one plays in the desert; one plays in a yurt; and one plays in her mother's touchy-feely yoga circle (actually, that one doesn't play as much as try to escape, a feeling with which many of us could sympathize). It seems that no matter where a six-month old lives, he or she coos and cries in virtually the same manner. The fathers are rarely seen, and the mothers don't get much airtime, either, so it's hard to contrast the cultural upbringings aside from the existence of goats or domesticated felines in the babies' proximity. .
Angelina Jolie once suggested that newborns are essentially "blobs" with no personality. That's both accurate and inaccurate. To a casual observer who doesn't spend a lot of time with the child (or a very busy mother with 8 kids and a nanny for each one), infants really are little more than cute little blobs of joyful life. But they do have strong personalities; you just have to be able to observe the baby long enough, play with it, hold it, and love it to detect that personality. Babies gives you a 20-minute glimpse at a full year of each baby's life -- that's hardly enough to see the joy and the magic and the life and the beauty underneath the adorable little blob. All we see is cuteness, and while that's enough fuel a Pampers commercial or a YouTube video, it loses its novelty early-on in a full-length documentary.