The stork brings Babies to theaters just in time for Mother's Day, which proves appropriate for more reasons than one. The first weekend of May also commences summer movie season and the release of many films basically made at the level of infants. So why not choose, then, to roll out a documentary literally made at the level of infants?
French director Thomas Balmes offers a rugrat's-eye-view of the world by following four babies over the course of their first year. Babies features virtually no dialogue, apart from the coos, cries and gurgles of its cherubic cast, so it unfolds like a nature film. But where a wildlife documentary like March of the Penguins imposes a narrative structure on its anthropomorphized subjects, Babies simply observes the lil' nippers as they gradually engage with their surroundings.
Babies also lacks much of a plot, but that doesn't mean it lacks an agenda. Balmes follows three girls and one boy from drastically different corners of the Earth: Ponijao in remote, dusty Namibia; Bayar (the sole male) in the steppes of Mongolia; Mari amid the skyscrapers of Tokyo; and Hattie in the tony, bohemian comforts of San Francisco. Frequently, Babies draws a sharp contrast between Third World hut and First World metropolis.
Ponijao, in particular, spends much of her infancy sprawled happily in the dirt, within reach of her mother or another watchful family member. The other parents swaddle and cosset their children in as much protection as possible. The first time we see San Francisco (apart from the requisite Golden Gate establishing shot) the camera pans down an elaborate piece of monitoring equipment in a maternity ward. At one point, Hattie's dad vacuums the floor next to her, then spruces her up with a lint brush.
Balmes' implicit message seems to be that First World parents, while no less loving than their Third World counterparts, both overprotect and overstimulate their offspring. The camera captures close-ups of Hattie and Mari as they ride shopping carts through superstores, the garish packaging at their eye level. At one point, the film shows Mari doing an airplane-style stretch in some kind of baby aerobics class, then cuts to Ponijao lying in a comparable position in a puddle. Ponijao spends the entire year in the open air, while Hattie's parents zip her up in a little cart when they take her bicycling. Babies suggests that infants will be healthy no matter how they grow up, but the film shows none of the protagonists get sick (let alone offer comparative health statistics), so the point seems misleading.
Babies' subjects sustain their adorability throughout the film, which finds occasional laughs with intrusive animals and moments of sibling rivalry. Nevertheless, the film doesn't offer much you couldn't find by watching 79 minutes of YouTube clips.