REVIEW: Disney Doc Chimpanzee Is Shamelessly Adorable Simian Sensationalism
Chimpanzees are the putative subject of Chimpanzee, another in a line of Disney documentaries with big, blunt titles (Oceans, Earth, Nature) and very specific stories to tell. This time out, narrator Tim Allen tells us, our tale promises “drama, sadness, and joy in a world you and I may never set eyes on.” That world is the Ivory Coast rainforest, and we’re pretty much looking at it just then, but it becomes clear early on in the beauteous but outrageously martial Chimpanzee that things might not be what they seem.
Because although our eyes tell us that the Ivory Coast is filled with wondrous life forms (my favorite might be the time-lapse sequence of a day-glo fungus), this world feels a lot like our own, where babies are nurtured by their moms, everyone has a name, and every happily functioning community has a mortal enemy one copse over. The center of Chimpanzee is Oscar, a just-born chimp with much to learn and about ten years to learn it. Oscar’s coo-factor was helpfully confirmed by the woman beside me, who turned to her young daughter and let out a helpless “awww” every time Oscar did something adorable, which is often, or every time Tim Allen said something shameless (“He may not be the most popular boy with everyone,” goes one such line, “but his mother’s love is something he can count on”), which is slightly less often. An early monkey business montage set to pop music sets a tone calibrated to charm children and their moms, but then Chimpanzee takes its subjects to war, and things get kind of weird.
Freddy is the alpha male in Oscar’s group of a few dozen chimps, and we are told there is another gang not far away led by an aging don named Scar. Well, “gang” is one of the words used to describe them. The others are: mob, forces, rivals, ranks, enemy, team, and troops. Scar and his whatever you want to call them really got the short end of this combat narrative: According to the uncredited script, those other apes are greedy heathens who have hoovered up all the food in their territory and are mounting an “invasion” in order to continue feeding their insatiable lust for… nuts. Poor sweet Oscar and his doting mother are in danger, although the monkey they help tear to shreds in a coordinated attack might tell you that the group’s survival skills are pretty sharp.
Inter-chimp and territorial fighting are facts of nature, but the extreme anthropomorphism of Chimpanzee makes what is natural feel bizarre. Excitedly setting up good guys and bad guys seems more about reinforcing our world than exploring theirs. Calling their work nature filmmaking rather than documentary, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield had a story and specific shots in mind when they set out on what turned out to be a four-year shoot. Their access to the chimps has the hidden world feeling of the best nature films, but rather than observational the human presence feels invasive.
For a nature film Chimpanzee cuts too many corners in the name of entertainment. Although Jane Goodall, a consultant on the film, has claimed that Oscar’s mother was killed by a leopard, in the film her disappearance is clearly connected to an attack by Scar and his goons. But our team starts looking pretty shabby as well: In the wake of her death the rest of the chimps turn their back on little orphaned Oscar, leaving him to starve and shunning him when he comes near. Then the extraordinary plot twist advertised at the beginning of the film takes shape, and there is a brief respite from all the military metaphor as Oscar and his new and unlikely adoptive parent bond.
Many of the images speak for themselves, to the extent that with a little more creative editing and narrative restraint Chimpanzee could work as a silent film. Oscar learns how to crack nuts and chew fruit, and long shots of a handful of apes moving stealthily across the forest floor have a chilling, forbidding beauty. The few times when Allen does keep quiet, ironically, are the only times you really want him to chime in – say to explain the soufflé-topped mushrooms that crumple in a puff of amber dust when so much as a droplet of water hits them. There are only a few glimpses of life beyond the chimp family, but each one is mesmerizing and elusive, perhaps as they should be.
Soon enough we’re back to the battle royale, when “Scar attacks,” “final pushes” are begun, “Freddy’s team can’t escape,” and “there can only be one victor.” I hope it doesn’t spoil anything to say that “teamwork beats brute force,” although the distinction between the two looked pretty thin to me. Anyway, the chimps fade from soldiers back into cartoon figures who seem to dance to our music, casting an impenetrable eye at the camera as we clap for more.