What It Is
Oscar the chimp is adorable. When first you see him in Chimpanzee, he’s just three months old, tiny and clinging to his mother, Isha. Even as a baby, his face is remarkably animated, and thanks to the very precise long-lens cameras in Disneynature’s newest film, you can see most every change as he responds to every event before him in the rain forest where he lives, with 35 other chimps. And if you have any doubt about how to read his looks in a given moment — whether he’s feeling playful or frustrated or afraid — not to worry! Narrator Tim Allen describes the little guy’s every possible emotional nuance and aspiration.
These tend to be shaped by life in the wild, the need to find food, the need to stick together as a group (sometimes called “troupes,” for chimpanzees), and the need to watch out for dangers posed by big cats or other chimpanzees. The movie — like other Disneynature movies — points out these dangers, but doesn’t show too many of them explicitly: Oscar and his troupe travel long distances to look for berries or crack nuts with logs and stones. They also endure rain and dark nights, as well as invasions by a rival “gang” of chimps (so named by the overwrought narration) led by a large and gnarly chimp called Scar (this in the tradition of too many villains in the movies, including Disney’s own The Lion King).
When Oscar loses his mother to one of these threats, the film takes a couple of turns, first following his loneliness and efforts to find comfort with other mom-aged females in the troupe. Already looking after their own children, they reject poor Oscar — whose sad face seems very sad in poignant close-ups, as do his hand gestures — until, surprise of surprises, the male leader of the community, named Freddy, take on the youngster.
What follows is a two-track story: the delightful bonding between Freddy and Oscar, and the ongoing threat posed by the large, shadowy bullies led by Scar.
Why It’s Fun
As always in Disneynature movies, the photography in Chimpanzee is astonishing. The foliage is brilliant green, the mushrooms seem animated (especially when pelted by raindrops), and the chimpanzees are incredibly detailed, from the length and color of their fur to the subtle glances they seem to be offering each other.
The emotional arc here, however, is not so brilliant as the imagery. Like other nature films aimed at families, this one tells a story that’s at once sad and harrowing and uplifting as if to underline how much chimps are like us. That’s easy to believe, given their human like expressions and gestures, but they are also wild animals, and so the narrative projection eventually starts to feel overbearing.
The narration is sometimes cute, as when Tim Allen comments on the chimps’ use of tools. But the narration is more often clumsy and reliant on clichés, as when Allen describes Freddy as “large and in charge” or speaks for a chimp who might be looking at another fumble with a tool (“What an idiot!”).
The storyline is further overstated when Allen asserts that one group of chimps “owns” a part of the (gigantic) forest or means to take revenge on another. The movie stretches out some of this competition narrative so it becomes repetitive.
At the end of the film during the credits, the filmmakers show off their equipment - large cameras, night-vision lenses, and waterproof boots — as they describe how fortunate they felt in undertaking this lengthy project. It’s a fascinating, if too brief, set of scenes, showing how they were able to capture all this wonderful footage.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the standard-setting March of the Penguins and another Disneynature documentary, African Cats, may be similarly enchanted by this story of a family in disarray. That disarray will be adjusted, of course, and a happy ending will out.
What To Be Aware Of
The film includes some difficult and violent events, including the most significant one for Oscar’s story, the death of his mother. When Freddy’s group chases after a capuchin monkey to eat, the hunt is described in a way that emphasizes their skill, with only a few seconds given to showing their feasting on the raw bloody meat.
When Scar’s crew invades Freddy’s “territory,” they appear as shadows, their faces mostly unseen and their limps dark against the green background: they seem ominous.
And when Isha is killed, an event the filmmakers did not witness, the screen shows shaking trees and windblown grasses, with a portentous soundtrack.
Oscar spends a few minutes looking distraught and being described as near starvation. This might be temporarily alarming for younger viewers.
Oscar’s tiny penis is visible in a couple of shots.
6 out of 10
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Cast: Tim Allen (narrator)
US Premiere: April 20, 2012
UK Premiere: October 29, 2012