Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
How long is Chimpanzee? 75 minutes.
What is Chimpanzee rated? G
Bending The Rules of Natural Selection For The Kiddos
In the mist-shrouded Ivory Coast jungle, all appears green and beautiful. The leafy trees shelter and sustain countless forms of life. We join a group of chimpanzees, in a serene moment, as they welcome a newly born male named Oscar into their midst. Oscar is going to learn a lot about the world in a hurry, and our job is to laugh, sigh, and gasp at his every discovery.
Chimpanzee is the sixth feature by Disney’s new production label Disneynature, which has already brought us such titles as Earth, Oceans, and African Cats. As in previous cases, the title describes exactly what this film will portray. Over the first several months of Oscar’s life, the complex demands of chimpanzee survival will become very clear indeed. The Jane Goodall Institute, logically the main co-producing entity of the film, is reaching out to a new generation of curious minds. The result skews surprisingly young, even for a Disney picture.
Tim Allen, now a pillar of the Disney family, narrates the story with plenty of tenderness and warmth. The script is overcrowded with jokey asides, but he has the right delivery to keep it afloat. It is important to remember that this is a nature film made for children, and has been scaled down accordingly. Given the remarkable tale the movie tells, it would be nice to have an alternate, rewritten “grown-up” cut on DVD, hopefully narrated by Linda Hunt. A perverse part of me would even like to see Werner Herzog take a crack at it, intoning morbid observations about despair and brutality in his soothing baritone as a baby chimp plays exuberantly in the forest canopy.
After introducing Oscar and his family, Allen foreshadows the trials of foraging with a splendidly eloquent line – “The jungle is a living, breathing thing, and does not want to be eaten.” What a wonderful way to illustrate the wilderness to a young audience. Stirring time-lapse interludes of plants, bugs, weather, and other natural forces divide the adventure of Oscar and company into neat chapters. It not only looks cool, but also calls attention to the constant, competing life cycles that define every twist and turn of the natural world.
Most of a chimpanzee’s day must be spent in search of food. Nut trees, fruit trees, anthills and rivers are spread far and wide, and Oscar’s family, led by dominant male Freddie, must stick together on the daily trek for chow. They have a lot of land to call their own, but the demands of feeding every mouth, especially with a new kid in the pack, sometimes push them far afield. Here, there is often danger.
Since this is not the sort of documentary many adults would want to attend without a retinue of little ones, here is the straight line for parents. This movie is about a baby chimpanzee who loses his mother in a turf war, grieves to near starvation, but ultimately wins the heart of the tribe’s elder male, who in an unprecedented gesture adopts him. The result is genuinely heartwarming. Imagine an all-ape staging of Gran Torino that the whole family can enjoy.
While the chimpanzee family unit is close-knit and internally loyal, separate tribes are fiercely territorial over their vast but still finite range. Cue the hyper-Disneyfied conflict between Freddie’s clan and a gang of hulking, aggressive rivals. The leader of the enemy pack is a cadaverous patriarch known as “Scar.” Yes, really. This is evidently shorthand for young viewers to identify the villain, but that should be no chore. They’re the group without any cute babies. This story is presumably all true, but the forbidding aspect of the “bad” chimps is such that it almost seems staged. Scar’s troupe are the kind of Apes who look ready to Rise and take the Planet. You get me?
Not that Freddie and family are invariably lovable either. Sorry, but any creature that hunts and eats colobus monkeys (apologies for the spoiler) is just the least bit unwholesome. Granted, we mostly see Oscar learning to harvest figs, fish for army ants, and crack nuts open. Thank goodness, the monkey shredding is brief and mostly offscreen. But even in context this episode is frightfully abrupt, lulled as we are by the gentle tones of Buzz Lightyear.
At the same time, it is to the filmmakers’ credit that they did not eliminate the stark and upsetting realities of Oscar’s life entirely. Children deserve to have nature shown to them in a balanced way, which includes mortality and the frequent difficulty of survival. Though a bit stunted in places, Chimpanzee is a good gateway for the very young, who are perhaps not ready for the full brunt of a more mature nature doc. There has probably never been a film about chimpanzees that made their lives seem anything but sad and often terrifying. Who remembers “People Of The Forest,” narrated with aching gravity by Donald Sutherland? One hint: you never want to see a chimpanzee battling with polio. You’ll have to lie down for a week. Fortunately, Disney stops well short of disease or poaching. That can wait.
I would love to have seen Chimpanzee as a child, because only in later life does one realize that wild chimpanzees, though sweet and cuddly clowns as infants, grow up to be kind of hideous and trollish. Warm, poignant, and important to the story as it may be, the nursing of a baby chimpanzee should be a private matter. It is nowhere near as cute as when piglets do it.
The sequence in which infant Oscar tries to pick up the knack of nut-cracking is probably the best part of the movie. It balances the appeal of an adorable baby ape with the the natural ingenuity that makes certain animals so intriguing to watch. Throughout Chimpanzee we witness acts of reasoning and creativity that show just how uncannily humanlike a feral primate can be. In addition to its clever methods of food gathering, a chimp can weave itself a nest of branches in the fork of a tree with impressive speed and minimal effort.
The photography in this film is outstanding. The crew of Chimpanzee captured all sorts of fascinating behavior from its subjects, and framed it all in marvelous jungle vistas. The sheer splendor of some of the waterfalls in this film will stop your heart. The music, on the other hand, categorically stinks. Given the overall good taste of the production, it seems inexcusable. The McClain Sisters single “Rise,” though only played over the end credits, sounds like Ester Dean’s “Celebrate The World” from that abysmal Lorax film. This is not a good comparison to invite. More egregious still is the dopey swing number played TWICE over Oscar’s treetop antics. Thanks for leaving nature some dignity, Radio Disney. Nature documentaries have never needed music, but if you feel they must, please hire David Attenborough’s composer instead. Or Sting, or U2, or whatever. A flawless, record-selling, and aesthetically defensible soundtrack is surely not out of Disney’s price range.
Bearing its shortcomings in mind, Chimpanzee is a welcome alternative to the sludge posing as family entertainment this season, and indeed most seasons. For those of us social primates not feeling our best on a Saturday morning, it should be comforting that natural selection is not an absolute. Compassion is a hard thing to come by in the jungle, but sometimes life gives out freebies.