produced by: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Don Hahn & Alex Tidmarsh
directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
runtime: 78 min.
U.S. release date: April 20, 2012
With chimpanzees named Oscar, Isha, Freddy, and Scar playing key characters in Disneynature’s sixth documentary, it seems a little suspect that no one is taking writing credits. After all, someone named these chimps and developed a story for them to inhabit. Granted, documentaries often omit any listing of writers in their credits, this beautifully shot, yet highly anthropomorphized documentary, clearly forces a dramatic narrative structure out of seemingly random footage to construct a story in order to keep us entertained. Although the subjects in “Chimpanzee” are fascinating, absorbing, and undeniably cute, this is the first of recent releases to coincide with Earth Day that has a certain unnaturalness to it. Clearly, the goal is to connect to squirmy children, but the decision to remove an organic observing process for viewers robs the film of its authenticity. It’s an unnecessary and unfortunate approach that lacks a confidence and trust in both the material and the audience.
“Chimpanzee” introduces us to Oscar, an adorable young chimp who is discovering how life works in the deep rainforests of West Africa. His expressive face, framed by oversized ears, is an immediate draw, as we watch him cling to his mother, Isha in their community led by alpha male, Freddy. When the group isn’t grooming each other, they spend their days foraging for food, such as bugs, fruit, and nuts using logs and rocks for tools . Observance is the key to Oscar’s survival, as the rambunctious youth must replicate the instinctual habits he sees in his group, as well as get use to how his body climbs and swings. We spend a considerable amount of time with Oscar, his mother, and their clan, but then the film has cue the ominous music to introduce the film’s antagonist.
There happens to be a rival gang of chimps led by Scar (I’m not kidding, they named him after another Disney animal villain, but producer Don Hahn was involved in “The Lion King”) trying to horn their way into Freddy’s territory. It can’t just be that these chimps are looking for food as well, they have to be the bad apes and they have to be a threat. Disneynature did the same thing last year with “African Cats”, where they showed us two rival prides and even gave them names as well. Those elements weren’t as heavy-handed as they are here and to top it off, “Chimpanzee” gives us corny narration by Tim Allen. That’s right, we have to hear him grunt and snort like Tool Time Tim as we see the clever chimps use logs and rocks to crack open their nuts. Ugh. Allen’s voice is a proven talent in the “Toy Story” movies, but his personality overwhelms the movie at times and his recycled mannerisms doesn’t do the movie any favors either.
Like any Disney doc, “Chimpanzee” has to pull our heartstrings in some way and this comes when Oscar finds himself orphaned. It’s tough to see the little guy try to figure out life without his momma, but pretty soon we see him getting some help. We’re told (instead of shown) that Freddy taking Oscar as his own is a remarkable thing, that these things just don’t happen. Unfortunately, directors Alastair Fothergill (“African Cats”) and Mark Linfield (“Earth”) didn’t think we could discover all that by ourselves. The manipulative tone they’re decided on goes against what these nature documentaries should be. While they provide some exquisite time-lapse photograph of plant life and capture some uncanny close-up shots of these noble and violent apes, there’s just too much cutesy monkeying around going on here to rise above the Disney-fied formula.
I’m not ready to fully give up on Disneynature (since they’ve delivered some impressive docs such as “Earth” and “Oceans“) and will give any future work a fair chance, but “Chimpanzee” has the studio tagged and labeled at this point. At first, the film came across like an interesting prequel to last year’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, but the movie eventually asks too much of us. During the end credits, we’re shown random clips, some quite funny, of those involved in making the movie. Briefly seeing these men and women brave harrowing environments and deal with various wildlife had me thinking how a film focusing on these adventure-seekers would’ve been much more interesting.