Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, September 13, 2001

Ruth Harkness, played by Maria Bello, enjoys a kiss
from a giant panda cub in the new Imax film "China:
The Panda Adventure." Harkness was a New York
socialite who took up the cause of panda research
and preservation.

Panda mania

Review by Shawn "Speedy" Lopes

Although set in the breathtaking splendor of China's mythical countryside, and filmed in part in awe-inspiring Jiuzhaigou National Park, IMAX's latest offering, "China: The Panda Adventure" is rooted in the true-life story of Ruth Harkness, a New York socialite who ventured halfway around the world to continue the work of her late husband, Bill Harkness.

The year is 1936, and adventurer Bill Harkness has succumbed to an unspecified illness while on a quest to study the elusive giant panda, a creature of whom very little was known at the time. Left with little more than a daily journal from which to piece together her husband's last days, Ruth (played with equal parts verve and warmth by Maria Bello, best known from her work as the strong yet compassionate Dr. Donna Del Amico on "E.R.") is imbued with the unshakable belief that the beautiful creatures observed by her husband must be protected from poachers who cannot appreciate the fragility of their existence.

Bello, as Harkness in China.

One individual who does not share the Harknesses' view is Dakar Johnston (skillfully portrayed by veteran actor Xander Berkeley), a hunter and sometime companion of Bill Harkness whose pursuit of the panda for personal gain draws Ruth's ire. Ruth is determined to reveal the plight of the panda to the world by bringing one of the many orphaned panda offspring back to the United States. She makes it known to all involved that she will do what must be done to halt Johnston's expedition.

Harkness's autobiography begins its inevitable slide into a Hollywood-style picture, yet it is also where the vaunted IMAX experience really begins to shine. While audience members may be situated 100 feet or so from the action, the wondrous natural beauty of the great Chinese wilderness seems to come alive through the crispness of the theater's crystalline sound system and the staggering clarity of the images projected onto the immense floor-to-ceiling screen.

As Ruth travels up the volatile Yangtze, first by steamer and then by sampan, viewers will be taken aback by the true-to-life sights and sounds of the rushing river and the stunning majesty of its surrounding landscapes. As expected, she encounters a variety of hazards of both natural and human design and resolves to conquer them all. Without spoiling the experience for future viewers, it can be said that the film ends, for the most part, on a positive note.

The fate of the endangered panda, however, is not so secure. Experts say there could be as few as 1,000 pandas left in the wild, and this ambitious movie project is as much a tool for spreading the awareness of the panda's plight as a film for entertainment. Partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund (recognized globally by its famous panda logo) and the Zoological Society of San Diego are testament to this endeavor.

"There is so much momentum building now in many parts of the world to help conserve pandas, and we are excited that this film may help bring greater awareness of the need for conservation," says Dr. Don Lindburg, Panda Team Leader at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, quoted directly from the production notes of "China: The Panda Adventure."

"I think this is probably our last great opportunity to turn things around for the survival of this species."

"China: The Panda Adventure"

Opens: Noon tomorrow, playing at noon, 4, 7 and 9 p.m. daily through Dec. 31
Place: Imax Waikiki Theatre
Tickets: $9.75; $5 for Hawaiian Zoological Society members
Call: 923-IMAX (4629)

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