Chimpanzee – Movie ReviewApril 26, 2012
Back on Earth Day 2009, Walt Disney Pictures released Earth (essentially a much shorter, theatrical cut of Planet Earth), which was the first film released under its Disneynature banner. Disneynature is no stranger to captivating, visually-appealing nature documentaries, for ever since the release of Earth, Disneynature has released a new one on Earth Day since 2009 (Oceans in 2010 and then African Cats in 2011). This year’s Earth Day adventure is Chimpanzee, a nature documentary about… you guessed it, chimpanzees. Since there has already been plenty of chimpanzee research done with film, is Disney’s offering special enough for you to shell out over $10 for a ticket?
A characteristic of all of Disneynature’s films thus far is the weaving together of footage to create a heartwarming, albeit true-life story. This is also the case for this film, for in the way it was seamlessly edited together, Chimpanzee is the most narrative-driven Disneynature documentary to date. Deep in the rain forests of Africa, there lives an infant chimpanzee named Oscar. He lives with his very loving mother Isha and a family/clan led by the very reserved but wise and powerful Freddy. Their daily struggle in finding reliable food sources is soon hindered when they experience a run-in with their formidable rivals: a much larger and notably militant gang of chimpanzees led by an aging but ruthless chimpanzee named Scar (hmm… I wonder why THAT name sounds familiar…). Soon, Oscar is separated from his mother and has to fend for himself, along with finding a suitable foster parent that will help him learn how to survive independently.
To put it plainly, Chimpanzee is essentially a real-life version of Bambi with chimpanzees (obviously). I know, I basically just gave away the story of this whole film, but the movie is given away in the trailer anyhow, and knowing what was going to happen later on did not ruin my enjoyment of Chimpanzee as a whole. Why? Well, let me ask you this question: how often do nature documentaries depict adoption amongst animals? It’s a truly extraordinary thing to witness Oscar lose his mother, struggle trying to survive on his own without her, and then unexpectedly have the leader of the clan adopt him as his own. If this was an animated film, then it would definitely be ok to write Chimpanzee as a knock-off of Bambi; even so, the fact that this actually happened makes Chimpanzee a great story all on its own. I’ve heard that some have criticized Chimpanzee for humanizing the film’s monkeys a little too much (that’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ job), and I suppose that this is true, but I didn’t have a problem with that at all since I found myself drawn to Oscar and the other chimpanzees in that way. Another positive aspect about Chimpanzee is that although narrative is a huge part, the filmmakers never forgot that they were producing a nature documentary, not just an animal-centric character drama. So yes, the facts are there, and the film also explores how chimpanzees survive in their day-to-day lives (or, as Tim Allen coins it, “make a living”). It’s actually rather interesting, because there is plenty of fun to be had when watching chimps hunt smaller monkeys, crack nuts (or at least try to), and also try to sleep at night. Overall, the film falters in some ways for humanizing the chimpanzees and suffering from somewhat slow pacing towards the beginning, but Chimpanzee is nonetheless an emotionally resonant blend of what you’d expect from a traditional nature documentary and a harmless story about the importance of family.
If you have been reading up on most of Chimpanzee’s reviews, then you may have read that the big problem most people (critics and audiences alike) have with this film is that Tim Allen is the narrator. Yes, there was a time when Tim Allen was an excellent comedian (have you ever seen Home Improvement?). However, in this film, he tries too hard to be funny in parts where humor isn’t even necessary, and as a result he’s almost never funny. There are some parts where he is funny (if only marginally so), but otherwise, the comedic dialogue falls flat and 80% of the jokes are forced and worthy of facepalms. Thankfully though, Tim Allen spends most of his time going for an approach that is like a mix of David Attenborough and Morgan Freeman’s voiceover work in March of the Penguins (in other words, he is informative on his subject, but a little more light-hearted than Attenborough). And it works! So if you were fearful that Tim Allen would ruin the movie, he only slightly fails in the comedic side of things.
Chimpanzee is a gorgeous film. Any great nature documentary requires excellent cinematography to give us an accurate and visceral look of the part of the world that a production team is documenting, and the team directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield certainly did a great job at accomplishing such a feat. We are always given close and very explorative shots of the chimpanzees, there are some spectacular shots of the rain forest canopy that reminded me of the rain forest sequences from Planet Earth (there are also some cool slow motion shots that show lightning as they cascade down from the sky), along with usage of mild shaky cam in the two battles between Freddy and Scar’s families. In addition to beautiful cinematography, the musical score fits each mood well. At times I was annoyed by how scary, evil-sounding music served to demonize Scar and his gang since they are just like Freddy’s family in the sense that they are trying to survive, but that’s more of a personal quibble than a true cinematic flaw. Otherwise, Chimpanzee’s musical score is great, although somewhat cliché in the way it sets the tone of some scenes.
Disneynature has once again succeeded at enchanting filmgoers (myself included) with an Earth Day adventure. Being both informative about the life of chimpanzees and a great story about the value of family, Chimpanzee is a somewhat unique and very engaging spin on the nature documentary genre. Yes, Tim Allen is often annoying in this film, but if you learn to shut him out of your mind, there is good fun to be had following Oscar’s trials in his early life. Plus, for every ticket sold, Disney has pledged to donate $.20 to the Jane Goodall Institute for the “See Chimpanzee, Save Chimpanzees” program dedicated to saving chimpanzees and their habitats, so that is certainly extra incentive to see 70+ minutes of the adorable Oscar monkeying around.