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The Little Rascals

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

The idea behind Babies is simple: train a camera on four unsuspecting infants in vastly different parts of the world and film whatever happens to them — without commentary of any kind.

The result is a surprisingly entertaining character study that elicits audience participation in its most basic forms.

Spanning three continents, this documentary shows the lives of four babies during their first year as they discover the world around them. It's a film of simple observation in which one filmmaker essentially entered the homes of four families around the world, set up a tripod, starting shooting, and then spent two years editing the hours of footage into something coherent.

It's by design that director Thomas Balmès chose such diverse environments in which to film, but it's a matter of human nature apparently that his film captures such similar behavior among children who act about as unselfconsciously as animals do in nature shows.

Ponijao (Namibia), Bayar (Mongolia), Mari (Tokyo), and Hattie (San Francisco) crawl around, cry, absentmindedly amuse themselves, play with dogs or cats, contort themselves as they play, facially react to things, cry louder, throw tantrums, learn how to say "mama" (or its equivalent), and learn to walk.

Babies focuses on the infants, wisely keeping the adults in the background — sometimes obscuring their faces, placing them in the distance, or keeping them out of the shot altogether. Instead, we see prolonged close-ups of tiny feet, hands, and eyes exploring their world. The babies discover the challenges posed by toys, whether they're plastic playthings designed to improve motor skills and hand-eye coordination, or just a piece of bone.

Their similarities are no less interesting than their differences. Mari and Hattie reside in large urban environments, while Ponijao and Bayar live in rural, even remote locations. It goes without saying that Mari and Hattie's days are more structured than those of Ponijao and Bayar, but it would be erroneous to judge the quality of their care from these observations. After all, Mari is scared by the glass-enclosed tiger at the zoo, while Bayar isn't fazed by the cattle ten times his size that stomp around him.

A chief reason why Babies appeals on so many levels is that we react emotionally to basic human situations that we all understand: joy, grief, surprise, wonder. We also can't help but make comparisons and draw conclusions based on what we identify with or find hard to comprehend. In the end, our reactions to this movie say more about us than the filmmakers ever intended.