***1/2 (out of 5)
April 20, 2012
Chimpanzees as THEMSELVES
Tim Allen as NARRATOR
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Four years ago when the Walt Disney Company started their DisneyNature brand and launched it with the film “Earth,” culled from the BBC’s brilliant series “Planet Earth,” I was skeptical whether it would last long. I am happy to see it still going strong and diversifying.
After “Earth,” we had “Oceans,” then “African Cats.” The last one was significant because it had a more narrow focus. Instead of dealing with the entirety of the planet, or the entirety of the oceans, “African Cats” focused on a few family groups. This offered an opportunity to tell more of a story than to just give an overview of a species.
This concept is taken even further with this year’s Earth Day release, “Chimpanzee.” The story follows a baby chimp named Oscar and his family group, led by the alpha male Freddy. The movie examines the challenges of life in the jungle, from finding a consistent source of food to butting head with another group of chimpanzees edging in on their territory.
Running a brisk 77 minutes, “Chimpanzee” takes a family-friendly whimsical look at the lives of these animals. However, it doesn’t shy away from the dangers they face, including potential starvation and predators like leopards. Still, even with the emotional ups and downs you’d expect from a Disney film, this is squarely in G-rated territory, making it safe for the kids to enjoy.
The most interesting elements of the film include the daily struggle for food and the use of tools by the chimps. Not presented in a “gee whiz” fashion, the documentary shows how the family unit passes along knowledge of how to gather and prepare food, including dipping sticks into an ant hill and using rocks to break open nuts.
Because of the singular focus on this one group of chimpanzees, which is even more focused than the look at several family units of African cats, this is easily the most cohesive release from DisneyNature. It’s also comfortable being a smaller movie, keeping to the limited range of the rainforest where the chimpanzees live. The burden of the entire planet was on the films “Earth” and “Oceans,” so this film seems far more intimate.
Additionally, I applaud the filmmakers for keeping themselves out of the film itself (except for some entertaining behind-the-scene footage shown during the closing credits). In this day and age of activist filmmaking, documentary directors have inserted themselves into the movie both subtly with voice over and overtly like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock taking center stage above the subject matter. It’s a comfort to see that nature filmmaking offers a last bastion of objectivity.
There is a few times during the film where it gets a little too cute for its own good. These scenes often make me wonder how much footage is cleverly edited together for the sake of a greater story or comedic effect. I expect this, however, considering that “Chimpanzee” is a children’s movie at its heart, even if some moments feel as genuine as a dolphin “hugging” its trainer during a Sea World show.
The only other downside to the film is the narration by Tim Allen, who is an entertaining actor and comedian, but he’s not quite David Attenborough. Still, with this being the biggest problem the movie has, it’s entirely forgivable.
Like the other Earth Day releases by DisneyNature, the Mouse House has pledged to donate a portion of the first week’s box office to preservation funds, so you can help save a chimpanzee by seeing “Chimpanzee.”