Trail of the Panda (熊貓回家路)

trail of the panda

There’s no getting around it. Pandas are adorable. A-dor-a-ble. Few things can turn my heart into mush like the sight of a chubby little panda cub tumbling down a hill and calling out for its mum like a squeaky toy. I am powerless in the face of these cuddly black and white fuzzballs, and I might as well admit that the sudden surge in oxytocin levels is threatening the integrity of this review.

And this is probably just the reaction Disney is hoping for. The studio’s second film tailored to Mainland audiences, after The Secret of the Magic Gourd, it banks on the universal appeal of China’s greatest, and fluffiest, national treasure. Well, it works, because even if the storytelling is lacking at times, Trail of the Panda has all the right ingredients for a heartwarming, family-friendly film.

It begins in the forests of Sichuan. A twelve year old boy (Daichi Harashima) is orphaned after a fire, and Old Chen (Zhang Qi), a lonely bachelor, takes him in. One day, they play host to a visiting scientist, Feng (Feng Li), who learns that a mother panda has given birth to twin cubs. He reasons that the mother will abandon one and that it will have a better chance of survival, and make a great research subject, if it is brought to a reserve. Feng sets off to capture one of the cubs but loses the trail in a rainstorm.

The boy, Lu, discovers the panda the next day and decides to keep it hidden from Feng and Old Chen. But nursing the injured cub back to health proves to be a tricky task. The cub, which he names Pang Pang, is a finicky eater and Feng’s sniffer dogs have picked up its scent. Despite his difficulties, Lu finds that Pang Pang is the perfect companion. Mute since his parents’ death, he finally opens up to the lost animal, who returns his affections with a playful and friendly attachment he’s never experienced before.

His devotion to Pang Pang makes this film special, and not just because shots of Harashima’s cherubic, rose-tinted face buried in a velvety pile of panda fur registers off the cute scale. Lu feels just as abandoned as his new playmate and wants nothing more than to hold on to their friendship. But his loss helps him recognize that he must help Pang Pang find its way back home. Harashima deserves a lot of credit for the integrity he brings to his character. He’s proven before, most notably in 2003’s Lost in Time, that he can turn on the waterworks both as an actor and in his audience.

The film also gets a lift from the relationship Lu has with Old Chen. This is depicted in glances rather than showy action or long tracts of dialogue, which is fitting for a quiet man who hasn’t quite figured out what kind of relationship he has with the boy. Zhang doesn’t get a flashy role, but he makes a big impact as the only person in the world who cares about Lu.

The film can be forgiven for a few narrative flaws, which cause some scenes to jump unexpectedly to the next plot point. Sichuan’s stunning landscape also seems to be underutilized, with filmmakers relying too heavily on close-ups and unimpressive green screen work. These decisions are understandable, however, as the devastating 2008 earthquake struck during production and destroyed the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve where many scenes were filmed. (The panda that played the mother died in the quake.) Overall, Trail of the Panda remains a solid effort and one that relies on more than fluffy animals to carry it through.

Alt Title: Touch of the Panda
Released: 2009
Prod: Elliot Tong 唐銘基
Dir: Yu Zhong 俞鍾
Writer: Jennifer Liu 劉偉儀, Jean Chalopin
Cast: Daichi Harashima 原島大地; Zhang Qi 張琪; Feng Li 馮礫
Time: 88 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015