The celebration of new life in “Babies,” a documentary about four newborns around the world, almost makes the project worthwhile — but not quite. French director Thomas Balmes dives right into his virtually wordless cycle of cross-cutting with hardly any introduction, instead favoring the collage approach. Drifting from the naturally grandiose vistas of Mongolia and Namibia to the urban enclaves of San Francisco and Tokyo, Balmes’s cameras reveal the universal curiosity that all young children share. As if that weren’t already obvious, he returns to the idea again and again, adopting an inherently redundant concept that might work better as a short film. Even the innumerable good-natured, sometimes irrefutably adorable moments can’t mask the movie’s own infantile qualities as it hopelessly staggers from one sequence to another.
Neither scientific nor conventionally ethnographic, “Babies” begins with an epic philosophical declaration in visual terms: Balmes displays the title in a high angle shot of crowded city streets, signaling the beginning of an all-inclusive origin story. At that point, the seemingly unending montage begins. Unsurprisingly, the babies do the sorts of things expected of them — meaning that they crawl, drool, feed, cry, sleep, and repeat the process until the credits roll. A cheery score by Bruno Coulais (“Coraline”), matched with the colorfully diverse landscapes captured by camera units across the globe, turn “Babies” into a bearable experience in individual moments.
Nevertheless, the experimental form never takes on precise significance, drawing attention to the sheer simplicity of the gimmick at hand. Lacking both drama and insight, these mini-profiles may only serve to scare would-be parents from taking on such fragile, aimless beings. Balmes has involuntarily created a warning against conception that could find its ideal home at Planned Parenthood.
Still, occasional potential emerges from the ongoing clip show. Balmes presents an inspired juxtaposition in the radically different parenting methods that arise in various climates. The clean, structured world of United States stroller culture provides an engaging contrast to the image of a child on his hands and knees in the dusty Namibian settlement. Balmes also explores divergent approaches to child safety, as a Mongolian baby perilously wanders under a family-owned cow with no parent in sight (which leads me to wonder if the crew had to restrain themselves from coming to the rescue). In San Francisco, the worst misstep takes place when a baby flies off his toy and lands in the sandbox. But if “Babies” intends to question social constructs surrounding child protection measures, it barely scratches the surface. The greatest charms come from its smaller moments, although they have no logical connection to anything else in the meandering plot. Shots of an infant repeatedly nodding off, vainly grabbing for her feet or getting a face full of poorly-aimed breastmilk only stay funny as long as they linger on the screen.
Considering the basic premise, “Babies” contains enough possibilities to warrant a more ambitious redo. If the compilation had a single motive, or at least some element of fluidity, it might offer a unique glimpse at the early gestation period of the human mind. Instead, it functions as an animated photo album featuring people that audiences have likely never met. Balmes apparently views his subjects as miniaturized movie stars, which makes this incessantly random snapshot of their lives amount to little more than a shallow obsession with cuteness.