Disneynature’s Chimpanzee Tells a Wonderfully Human Tale

Geek Culture

Mother and baby chimpMother and baby chimp

Isha and Oscar in a quiet moment.

Just in time for Earth Day, Disneynature’s fourth film made its debut on Friday; Chimpanzee follows a band of chimps in their daily life, with particular focus on a baby named Oscar, and the surprising turn his story takes is what carries the film. Disneynature is the first new film division to be added to the Disney family in several years, and it specializes in wild animal documentaries that capture some of the flavor of Walt Disney’s “True Life Adventures” films; previous films have focused on ocean life and the big cats of Africa. This time, we follow a family of chimpanzees and learn about their lives, which aren’t always cute. If it does nothing else, this film should go a long way toward convincing children that they don’t want a chimp as a pet.

Chimpanzee is rated G, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good film for children of all ages; things like attention span and sensitivity will need to be taken into account, as there are some slow-moving sections and a few somewhat scary incidents, such as when the chimps hunt monkeys or battle a neighboring group for control of some nut trees. For a little glimpse into chimpanzee social interaction, consider this: virtually every adult chimp we see here has at least one chunk bitten out of at least one of its ears. On TV, we usually see immature or adolescent chimpanzees; they are cute and cuddly and funny and we love them, especially when they are dressed up and doing what they’ve been trained to do. In the wild, adult chimps are big, surly and not at all hesitant about using force to get what they want. Some of the chimps here look more like gorillas, and it may come as a bit of a surprise to some viewers.

Tim Allen provides the narration, and while he lacks the authority and dignity of James Earl Jones or Samuel L. Jackson (both of whom narrated previous Disneynature films), he does a capable job for the most part, only slipping into his “more power! ungh! ungh!” schtick on one occasion. A bigger concern is the script he’s been given, which needlessly anthropomorphizes the subjects a few times too often. In the clip shown here, for example, the narrator tells us what the apes are supposedly thinking:

I suspect that the narration here is necessary to establish the story being told, which may very well have been manufactured in the editing room; we don’t actually see the playing chimps and the napping chimp in the same shot, so they may have been filmed on different days or in different locations and stitched together for dramatic purposes. But the business is cute and natural and entertaining, as young chimps usually are. This might be a good lead-in to a conversation with your kid about how movies can create a story or drama through editing. There are a few such opportunities in this film. For example, take careful note of how Allen describes the chimps and their rivals: “our” chimps are a “band,” a “family,” or a “troop,” while the other chimps, the aggressive and oppressive invaders, are labeled an “army,” a “mob” or a “gang.” The chimps we’re supposed to root for are led by “Freddy,” and the chimps we’re supposed to dislike are controlled by the menacing and ugly “Scar.” In reality, the chimps are pretty much the same; if Freddy’s tribe were larger, he’d be leading the “army” against Scar’s poor band of put-upon underdogs. The words are carefully chosen to direct our emotions the way the filmmakers wish them to go.

Having said all that, the movie is still very worthwhile for the portions that aren’t carefully controlled; when Oscar’s mother goes missing after an ugly confrontation with the rival group, we see his struggle to survive, and watch as one by one the other adults reject him when he tries to find a new place in the group.

The filmmakers have said that they intended to follow Oscar, with the focus of the story being is relationship with Isha, his mother, as he grows from utter dependence to maturity, but when Isha was lost (injured in the attack and presumed killed by a leopard), they thought they would have to start over with a different group and look for another story. They were certain that having been orphaned and rejected, Oscar was likely to die; the ethics of documentary work require that they not interfere in the natural course of events, but the death of a baby chimp was not the story they wanted to tell.

Oscar aloneOscar alone

After losing his mother, Oscar tries to make it on his own.

A few days before they would have to decide whether to stop filming Oscar’s story, an amazing thing happened, something that chimp experts say simply doesn’t happen: Oscar found an adoptive parent to care for him, and not just any parent, either. Freddy, the alpha male of the pack, took it upon himself to become Oscar’s surrogate parent. The “top dog,” who is entitled to first pick of everything, instead chose to feed his new son before himself. The scenes with him carrying his new son on his back just the way Isha had are very compelling. The more sensitive members of your family may want to have a box of tissues handy.

Somewhat manipulative storytelling aside, Chimpanzee is a film worth seeing, though younger viewers may squirm through the slow parts and be upset by the normal life of apes in the wild. It is informative, educational and moving, despite the few things I complained about here. You’ll be startled both by how human-like some of their behaviors are, and by how little chimps in the wild resemble the cute critters we saw on Daktari back in the ’70s. As an added bonus, if you see it this week, you get to help save endangered chimps; for every ticket sold this week, Disney will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Foundation. “See Chimpanzee, save chimpanzees” is their slogan.

For educators and families that are interested, Disney has created some activity pages and teacher guides for the film, which can be downloaded from the Disney Media site.

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