Immersing themselves for three years in the densely forested jungles of Ivory Coast, Disneynature filmmakers Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield and team emerged with more than 700 hours of breathtaking footage of chimpanzees in their natural habitat. The result is the fourth documentary under the Disneynature flag Chimpanzee, an intricately-detailed, gorgeously-filmed affair that manages to entertain the masses in spite of its heavy tilt towards a G-rated audience and its insistence on putting drama, sadness, and a host of other human emotions before factual information.
At the film’s center is the tale of an adorable baby chimp named Oscar and his extended family. Oscar’s story begins in the arms of his caring mother Isha, but following an off-camera tragedy that separates mom and babe, Oscar is adopted by Freddy, the group’s alpha-male in what is said to be a gender-role behavior never caught on film. Oscar’s abandonment certainly feels real, and the baby chimp’s struggles to regain a place in the group appear genuine, but it’s difficult to trust the film’s more serious claims when it so desperately tries for our heartstrings by attaching human feelings to the wildlife.
Of course Disney has been anthropomorphizing its furred and feathered characters since what seems like the beginning of filmmaking, so it’s a bit unfair to criticize the practice here. But rather than use Oscar’s story as an educational tool or as a means to further our understanding of the challenges this endangered species faces, the filmmakers pander, via a juvenile narration by Tim Allen, to the family-friendly audience by forcing human emotions such as tragedy, sadness, and family love onto the apes. This not only undermines the seriousness with which the subject matter should be viewed, but it also tends to deemphasize the care and attention the plight of this great species deserves. Must everything in Disney’s world be a cartoon?
Much of the film’s chimpanzee footage is interspersed with glorious high-definition shots of the jungle at work. Aerial helicopter clips and sweeping steadicam footage through the forest canopy provide an incredibly beautiful wide-angle view of the Taï Forest in Africa’s Ivory Coast. These B-roll shots of rain drops pounding fungal puffballs that send millions of spores into the air, and lightning bolts ripping through a cloud-darkened sky are, at times some of the film’s most interesting, and certainly help to emphasize nature’s majesty and provide a much-needed wide-angle scope of the world these magnificent creatures live in. Then… back to that cutesy narration.
Yes, Chimpanzee is a great family film full of wonder and great adventure. Aren’t all Disney movies? After all, that’s what keeps audiences coming in droves. And this one will be no different. The “circle of life” is as front-as-center here as it is in any of Disney’s best animations to date, but you’ll need to decide for yourself if the cornball narration is a necessary concession. Perhaps when released for home video, it’ll come with the option to select an informational narrative voiced by Morgan Freeman. Don’t count on it, but we adults can dream, right?
MPAA Rating: G for general audiences.
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Writer: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Cast: Narrator - Tim Allen
Memorable Movie Quote:
Release Date: April 20, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available
Synopsis: A new True Life Adventure introducing an adorable baby chimp named Oscar and his entertaining approach to life in a remarkable story of family bonds and individual triumph. Oscar's playful curiosity and zest for discovery showcase the intelligence and ingenuity of some of the most extraordinary personalities in the animal kingdom. Working together, Oscar's chimpanzee family-including his mom and the group's savvy leader - navigates the complex territory of the forest. The world is a playground for little Oscar and his fellow young chimps, who'd rather make mayhem than join their parents for an afternoon nap. But when Oscar's family is confronted by a rival band of chimps, he is left to fend for himself until a surprising ally steps in and changes his life forever.