Aping nature’s drama, Disney-style: 'Chimpanzee' is part 'Lion King,' part ode to stay-at-home fathers
The wildlife footage is astounding in DisneyNature’s new documentary “Chimpanzee.” Legendary primatologist Jane Goodall is on board as both spokeswoman for and beneficiary of the film, and a portion of opening-week ticket sales will be donated to her research. In general, the more young people who see the film, the more who will be made aware of a fascinating, complicated near-relative whose numbers are dwindling rapidly.
Does all this mean “Chimpanzee” has to be so Disneyfied? Sadly, it probably does. The result of four years filming in the Tai Forest National Park in Africa’s Ivory Coast, the new “animal drama” (in the words of codirector Alastair Fothergill) has been whittled down into a picture-book narrative aimed at 6 year olds. Tim Allen provides jokey narration and lite-jazz songs bop along to images of frolicking baby chimps. How badly does this movie want to be “The Lion King” of ape documentaries? The villain’s named Scar.
Also, in true Disney form, Mom is lunchmeat. The film crew led by Fothergill and his partner Mark Linfield trained their cameras on a small group of chimps with an adorable newborn at their center. He’s called Oscar (by everybody except his fellow apes, presumably). The early scenes of “Chimpanzee” convey the tight familial and social bonds surrounding the new addition and also the steep learning curve involved in using nature’s tools to eat ants and crack nuts. All of which pales beforethe fact that Oscar is wide-eyed and adorable, provoking choruses of awwws with every shot.
Because we need villains, there’s Scar, grizzled leader of a rival chimp group that covets a crucial nut grove. “Chimpanzee” uses cutting and music scoring to whip us into a state of suspense as Scar’s minions — ugly, cross-eyed simians next to the hairy elegance of Oscar and friends — move in for conquest. When Oscar’s band is temporarily dispersed, his mother meets a vague offscreen fate (in reality she was killed by a leopard) in keeping with the film’s blurry attitude toward the harsher aspects of life in the wild.
What happened next was as startling to ape experts as it is to audiences: The motherless Oscar should in all likelihood have perished but was instead adopted by the band’s alpha male, Freddie, who taught the little guy feeding techniques and otherwise acted as a benevolent substitute father. “Chimpanzee” becomes an unexpected but very canny valentine to stay-at-home dads, with various challenges noted (focusing on the kids comes at the expense of protecting one’s territory) and a climactic confrontation with Scar’s army. It’s all as tidy as a film editor and Allen’s cracker-barrel voice-over can make it.
All audiences stand to be charmed except those grouches who prefer their animals to be valued as animals rather than as furry little people. And even the grouches will be swayed by many of the images and scenes here: a crashing lightning storm over the forest, a chimp almost existentially resigned to sitting in the rain, a remarkable sequence in which Freddie leads his chimps in a complicated ambush of several colobus monkeys, one of whom becomes that night’s dinner. Not that you see much in the way of interspecies carnage. In “Chimpanzee,” nature is beige in tooth and claw.