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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Here's a movie idea to make a studio executive's head spin: document the raising of four babies in four countries, offer no dialogue and ask audiences to show up in theaters against big-budget "Iron Man 2."
"Babies," which opened on Friday in the United States and Canada does exactly that and is winning many good reviews. Focus Features, the specialty film label of giant Universal Pictures, hopes it can be the next "March of the Penguins."
"Penguins," about emperor penguins fighting for survival and raising their young in Antarctica, was similarly an odd choice for movie theaters, but it earned a strong following and became a major hit in 2005. It won the Oscar for best documentary and earned $127 million at global box offices.
In fact, the "Babies" makers explain their movie as a sort of wildlife film about humans -- from birth until the time they take their first steps -- and what plays out for audiences is a glimpse into how world communities may be very different, but human nature is very much the same across borders.
"My work has always been very broad and I look and try to understand how other cultures are living," director Thomas Balmes told Reuters.
Balmes, a Frenchman whose previous work such as "A Decent Factory" similarly looked at cultural differences, spent two years traveling to Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the United States to film the babies in each of their families.
In Namibia, the child Ponijao is raised by her family in a hut near Opuwo. The baby Bayarjargal lives on a farm in a tent near Bayanchandmani, Mongolia. The children in Tokyo, Japan and in San Francisco, United States, get a more urban upbringing that will be familiar to Western audiences.
Balmes said all the families live comfortably in their particular surroundings, but none are meant to be completely representative of their country's entire culture.
"They are only representative of themselves, and there should not be, there is no judgment of any sort," he said.
The movie is meant merely as an observation of ways of life and, of course, about babies -- how they interact with us and how we interact with them, care for them and teach them.
Balmes said he spent roughly two years videotaping the babies. He would travel the world and spend about two weeks at a time with each of the families, filming the babies only when they were doing something different or dynamic.
He shot them about 45 minutes per day, and ended up with 400 hours of footage that was edited into the 79-minute movie.
The director said he and the producers sought families who were happy and positive, so the film takes on a rather buoyant point-of-view about raising the bouncing bundles of joy. In fact, Balmes likes to consider it a comedy.
"I think this comedy aspect allows the film to be enjoyed by a wide group of people," he said. "And if (an audience member) doesn't speak a word of English, this will be the perfect movie."
Focus Features signed on to distribute the movie at a very early stage because, Balmes said, it's chief James Schamus "loved the idea."
And for the most part, critics have liked it. The movie scores a 67 percent positive rating on review aggregator rottentomatoes.com.
"The film's subjects are hard to understand and nearly impossible to resist," writes New York Times' A.O. Scott. "They project weakness and innocence, yet they also possess almost terrifying powers. And they are just so gosh-darn cute!"
Editing by Christine Kearney