Interview: Drew Fellman and Jake Owens on the new IMAX Film “Pandas”

Posted on April 1, 2018 at 10:15 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
Pandas are, as someone notes in the adorable new IMAX documentary simply called “Pandas,” “the King Kong of cuteness.” Kristen Bell narrates the story of an ambitious and daunting Chinese project, to take panda babies bred in captivity and release them into the wild, to repopulate the endangered species. The Chinese panda specialists consult with an American from New Hampshire who has a similar program for bears. And we get to watch as a panda named Qian Qian leaves the only home she has ever known. I spoke to director Drew Fellman and American panda expert Jacob Owens, who worked with Qian Qian and appears in the film.

Why are humans so drawn to pandas?

Fellman: I know, it’s a mystery, isn’t it? There is so much about that that really is so unknown, part of it I think is that pandas are still so new to us. Pandas were unknown to the West until about the 1860’s and the first panda showed up in the U.S. in 1920. Once people were introduced to pandas there has been a panda mania of some sort. From the very beginning they just captured the public imagination and I think part of that was because they seemingly came out of nowhere and they’re so big and so adorable and they look so unlike any other animal. The physical answer as to why they’re so adorable is because they have the strongest jaws you can imagine so they can bite through solid bamboo and that gives them these huge jaw muscles which give them a big round head like a giant baby.

Owens: Yes, babies are cute because they have big eyes and they have round heads, they’ve got disproportionate ears; and so you look at the pandas and it’s got big black spots that look like big eyes and big ears and a big round head, also they roll around more than any other animal I’ve ever seen. They love rolling. So not only do they do look really cute, they’re also really silly goofy animals.

In the film you say that the three qualities you were looking for in finding the right panda for the release program were courage, curiosity, and climbing ability. Why were those were the key skills and how do you look for them?

Owens: There is a lot of research that goes into this that we can draw from. It starts off with genetics and health; we want healthy individuals who have the right genetics for the places that we’re looking to release them. The next thing is looking at the behavior. We introduce novel stimuli to see how they respond. If an individual panda sees something new and instantly runs towards it that’s not necessarily the quality we need because we want them to be curious but also careful but you also don’t them to be so wary of everything that they won’t explore. They’ll need to explore their habitat, being able to find food on their own; things like this, so having in moderation being exploratory but also being cautious, being really vigilant; vigilance is a big thing always looking out for new dangers, those are the key features. And they have to climb well because they have to spend a lot of time in trees. They flee predators up trees and so being able to walk around and climb and do that well at a young age is a good indicator.

Did it feel like leaving a child at school to say goodbye that way?

Owens: Yeah, worse. As scientists you try not to get attached to the animals that you’re studying but this is very different than just strict science; this is reintroduction and release of individual animals and so we are doing all this research but then you’re also dealing with an individual and their own personality that’s unique and so you can’t help but personify and you can’t help but get very attached. You really care about them as an individual and also what they represent for the species. As a conservation biologist, I’m focused on making sure that there are individuals of species in the future. But at the same time just like anybody else, just like if you have a human child you want them to go off on their own and be able to be successful. It’s just that how you prepare them is a bit different. I don’t ever refer to it as training because I can’t train a panda to be a panda because I’m not one. So I call it conditioning or preparing, letting their natural instincts come out progressively through increasingly wild conditions and eventually to the point when they are ready to go out. We open the gate and she can make that decision when she wants to go out and when she wants to come back and, when she’s ready, just to be out fully.

What was the most important thing that the project learned from Ben Kilham, the man who has been raising bear cubs and releasing them successfully in New Hampshire?

Owens: Ben has been doing black bear rehabilitation for more than 20 years and so he’s just got a huge amount of knowledge about bears in general and pandas are bears. They are very different bears but they’re still bears. He also knows so much about rehabilitating and releasing animals. I’ve worked on reintroduction programs before with different species. People think that you should avoid all human interactions. Ben takes the opposite approach. He says there’s no real way to do that because these black bears don’t have a mom so you have to hand raise these cubs and you have to give them a safe environment to progress into the wild. Our pandas are born in captive care. Their mothers are also captive-born individuals so they don’t have the wild skills to teach their cubs. So for Ben the biggest thing is that human interaction has a real advantage, because once they trust you that provides us the access to keep on learning more about their biology, to keep on learning more about their conservation and also monitor them. I can change Qian Qian’s GPS collar just as Ben can with Squirty as you see in the film, and that’s a huge advantage because we can monitor her, we can follow her, we can see where she’s at, see how she’s doing. As technology increases we can do a lot more with that technology but if you don’t have access to them and they don’t trust you, then you’ll have to take other measures. You have to capture them in some kind of trap or use sedation and so because they know and trust us it’s a lot easier for us to do those things. Using those human interactions for those advantages is the biggest thing that I have learned from Ben in terms of our project.

Fellman: Also from the panda’s point of view is the positive interaction with the humans as opposed to being trapped or tranquilized which can be dangerous and can frighten them.

Owens: There is also the misconception that I had coming into this that if a panda or black bear gets used to one individual or a handful of individuals then they’re used to people and then they’re going to be a nuisance animal then there’s going to be a real problem and they’re not going to do well when they go out. But pandas and black bears are really smart and they can identify individual people very easily by the sound of their voice, by the smell and also by vision somewhat when you get close. It was a big learning thing for me to learn that we were wrong in thinking that this risk of them trusting a few human individuals is going to lead to touching every human. My dogs don’t do that in the States and most people’s dogs don’t do that in the States. Most animals just don’t do that.

What’s the most important thing that you want families to learn about pandas when they watch this movie?

Owens: I want people, especially families with young kids, that people around the world can work together really successfully and use their own combined strengths to work on an endeavor that’s really challenging. We’re really dedicated and I think that’s the big point — all of us globally working together to achieve a difficult goal.

Fellman: And another important message is that pandas are much more than just adorable animals; they are very smart, occasionally fierce, a bear with a mind of their own and they’re all individuals. It’s going to take a lot to create a better future for them and it’s something that’s really worth fighting for.

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Posted on March 22, 2018 at 5:06 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with disturbing images, giant robots, alien monsters, explosions, mass destruction, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 23, 2018

Copyright Universal 2018
I know you’re all eager to hear whether you will understand this movie if you haven’t seen (or, more likely, saw and forgot) the first one. Here is my answer: you won’t understand this film even if you did see and remember the first one and it just doesn’t matter. The first one was about giant robots fighting alien monsters and it ended with Idris Elba giving a great pep talk to the troops and then sacrificing himself to save the world.

Second verse, same as the first. Even bigger robots.  Even meaner monster aliens.  Even dumber dialogue.  Buildings knocked down and shattered as though they were made of eggshells.  A volcano. Plus mutant robot monster aliens.  A near-feral girl with a gift for creating robots.  A pilot with daddy issues.

And, I can’t help it, since it takes two pilots who mind-meld in a process called “drift” to operate the giant robots called Jaegers in perfect synchronization, every time they do it I keep thinking they’re playing Dance Dance Revolution.

That would be only slightly more silly than the actual storyline (hmm, a “Step Up”/”Pacific Rim” crossover — I offer this idea freely, noting that there is a promise of a third chapter at the end of the film).

“Star Wars'” John Boyega (who also co-produced) plays Jake, the son of the Idris Elba character. As he explains in a striking opening scene, the world has in some ways returned to normal after the defeat of the Kaiju monsters, though their enormous skeletons are still a reminder of the fight, one right next to the pool where Jake is enjoying a life of girls and parties. He has no interest in following in his father’s footsteps as a pilot or a hero. Like his “Star Wars” pal Rey, he is a scavenger, looking Jaeger robot junkyards. But things go wrong when a helmeted motorcycle rider steals the special part he promised to some very unforgiving guys. I note here the famous Roger Ebert rule that a mysterious helmeted figure will always turn out to be female. Yes, Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is not only female but young, and a Shuri-like tech whiz who is building her own Jaeger. The two of them end up in jail, and then, of course, sent to pilot training. “Ender’s Game”-style, younger recruits are taken because they are better at drifting.

When they arrive, Amara excitedly recognizes all the various Jaegers as a way of reintroducing us to them, and, discovering who Jake is, reminds us again that his father was a hero and he is not too happy about that. The tough, this-is-serious-business commanding officer is Nate (Scott Eastwood, channeling his dad), who says things like, “You and I both know you could have been great.”

There’s also a lot of “We need it now.” “It can’t be done.” “Do it anyway” “I need more time!” “We don’t have any!” “You got this!” “Let’s do this!” “Will it work?” “One way to find out!” talk and a lot of “20 kilometers to impact” military/tech language. And Jake says he can’t give a pep talk like his dad but he does. Does it include “This is OUR time!” Yes, it does.

The good thing is that the movie does not just know how silly it is — it embraces the silliness. The better thing is that it has EVEN BIGGER ROBOTS fighting EVEN BIGGER MUTANT ROBOT ALIENS! No matter how dumb it gets, no matter that the robots and monsters have more personality than the humans, no matter how much it seems like a mash-up of “Transformers,” “Ender’s Game,” “Starship Troopers,” and anime, it is undeniably fun to see robots bashing monsters, and thankfully there isn’t much in between the battles to slow things down.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, chases, explosions, scary monsters, some disturbing images, sad death of parents, issues of sacrifice, brief strong language, brief crude humor

Family discussion: Why did Jake insist that he was not like his father? How do you think the drift works? How do you prevent being defined by other people?

If you like this, try: The first “Pacific Rim,” “Ender’s Game,” and “Starship Troopers”

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Transformers: The Last Knight

Posted on June 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
Profanity: Strong language, many s-words and crude insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy violence, fire, guns, explosions, chases, characters injured and killed, reference to suicide
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 25, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

It is time to stop the madness. I only wish this was called “Knight: The Last Transformers Movie.” I am as happy as anyone to see robots transforming into cars and cars transforming into robots and I freely admit to tearing up once when it appeared that Bumblebee might have been mortally wounded. I’m very fond of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and I’m also very fond of Mark Wahlberg. But this big, loud, dumb, dull, nonsensical dud of a movie is two and a half excruciating hours long.

Wahlberg returns as inventor-turned-renegade Autobots protector Cade Yeager. The government has set up a special branch of the military to get rid of all of the transformers, making no distinction between the honorable Autobots led by Optimus Prime and the evil Decepticons led by Megatron. We see in a prologue set in the time of King Arthur that the Transformers go back more than 1000 years, when Merlin, who turns out to have had no magical skills at all, was given the “weapon of ultimate power,” a staff that enabled Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to win some battle with the help of a pretty impressive three-headed dragon. The staff and an amulet that is somehow connected to it will be the McGuffins that everyone will be looking for despite the fact that we never really find out what they can do.

Sure, the stunts are fun, and I especially enjoyed seeing Wahlberg leap from drone to drone like he was a stone skipping on a pond. But without a clear idea of the stakes there is no heft to them; it’s just pixels.

And the dialog — I can’t say which is worse, the painful attempts at banter (there’s an intended-to-be cute but isn’t at all riff on the homonyms “chaste” and “chased”), the exposition-heavy portentousness (“Where in Hell is your so-called magician?” “He will be here, Lancelot.” “Why do we tell ourselves these stories? We want to believe we can be heroes in our own lives.” “Do you seek redemption?” “Only a direct descendant of Merlin can wield this instrument of immense power!”), or the faux meaningful (“You are more important than you can possibly imagine”). If someone has to be spouting off idiotic explanations, though, at least most of it is in the beautifully husky Welsh voice of Sir Anthony (though his character’s ripping a page out of an antique library book is the most disturbingly violent act in the film).

Not much makes sense in “Transformers: The Last Night.” I’m not talking about why a robot would smoke a robot cigar-type sense. We expect that going in. But why would a robot want to eat a car?
And I’m talking about the basic elements that are necessary to connect to what is going on. How do you kill a Decepticon? Sometimes robots blow apart and sometimes they just come back together like in “Terminator 2.” How do we know how we are supposed to feel if we don’t know what the impact/import of a hit is? That all-powerful weapon? We never understand what it can do and it doesn’t seem very powerful after all. What is the point of Tony Hale spouting off about physics? I will note that one completely deranged moment was actually quite fun, when a C-3PO rip-off (acknowledged as such!) turns out to be the source of the dramatic organ music in one scene: “I was making the moment more epic.” A bit more deliriously loopy stuff like that would have been a step in the right direction.

What is the point of all the jokes about how a professor at Oxford should be looking for a husband? (Or a wife?) What is the deal with way too many daddy issues? Everyone in this movie seems to be a daughter looking for a daddy or a daddy looking for a daughter. As for this daughter, I’m just looking for a good summer stunts and explosions movie. Still looking.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence with chases, explosions, swords, guns, and monsters. Human and robot characters are injured and killed. Characters use strong and crude language and there is some dumb sexual humor.

Family discussion: Does it matter that Cade is “chosen?” Which Transformer is your favorite and why?

If you like this, try: the other “Transformers” movies and the television series

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