Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Disney’s newest nature documentary, Chimpanzee, tells a good story. It shows the development of a baby chimp as he grows and learns about the world of the jungle all around him. His mother begins to teach him how to find food, how to groom, how to survive. But then something terrible happens. His mother goes missing, probably killed by a predator like a leopard, and the poor little chimp is orphaned, alone and barely more than helpless. His attempts to find a fully-grown chimp to help him are difficult, but then help arrives from an unexpected member of the group and an unlikely bond is formed.

The above reads like a very Disney description. It could just as well describe a vibrant, musical animated version of the same events. (In fact, in its broad strokes, isn’t it kind of Bambi with a light splash of The Jungle Book?) The remarkable thing here, though, is that this story is true. A team of British wildlife documentarians was out getting remarkably intimate footage of chimpanzees in the wild and happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the story of this young chimp. Though clearly culled from hundreds of hours of footage and then heavily edited to make this short documentary flow with a narrative arc, the basic observation of these animals is what really makes this movie special.

There’s something so strangely human in the eyes of a chimp. When the cameras catch them staring in their general direction, there’s a chance to watch the way the light darts around the eyes, the way the eyes shift and dance with something more than mere primal primate instincts. They look like they’re thinking; they look like they’re feeling. Science tells us that chimpanzees have DNA that is 99% identical to human DNA. That has to explain how, as the movie shows us chimps using tools, making plans, showing affection, fear and anger, it feels all so eerie and adorable and fascinating. They’re so close to humans and yet that extra 1% makes them so far away as well.

That’s what directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (who created the BBC’s essential Planet Earth miniseries) have made excellent use of in creating Chimpanzee. They trust that their remarkable footage is just that. It’s a rare chance to see chimps in the wild behaving as chimps do. They use sticks and rocks to crack open a harvest of nuts. They bend branches into nests for sleeping through the night. Little chimps roughhouse. Adults fight over territory with a rival group of chimps. And through it all the little chimp that is our focus – the film names him Oscar and I suppose there’s no way to ask the chimps what his real name is – provides an adorable, intensely sympathetic throughline.

Where Fothergill and Linfield hedge their bets, where the documentary feels most Disney for the worse, is the wall-to-wall narration from Tim Allen. His voice is warm and inviting, with great energy and likability. (Come to think of it, if you were, for some reason, making a list of Top Five Tim Allen movies, three would have to be his voice acting in the Toy Story movies). He’s not really the problem here. What bothered me was the way the narration goes inside the minds of the chimps, projecting and anthropomorphizing in ways that the footage and the story itself doesn’t. When it sticks to the facts about the chimps and their rituals, social behaviors and routines, it’s just fine. I didn’t even mind some of the more strictly subjective judgments, like calling the rival chimps fighting over the territory “enemies,” although at times reducing the complexity of a wild ecosystem into good-guy bad-guy seems a bit too easy. What really bothered me were moments like when the branch Oscar’s using as a tool breaks before cracking a nut and Allen says, speaking presumably for Oscar, “Hey! This is defective!” Later, he’ll even be asked to do his Home Improvement grunt. (Or maybe he volunteered it.)

The footage of the chimps is so often incredible that I wish they’d scaled back the narration. It’s the aspect of the film that seems most calculated to children in the audience, but it’s misjudged and at some points comes across as talking down to the entire audience. But the story that the documentarians were lucky enough to capture is so strong, so interesting, that it’s almost enough to overpower my objections. I’m not suggesting that the story occurred exactly as presented. There’s definitely editing involved in helping in the shaping of the footage into this narrative, clarifying and eliding in equal measure, but I don’t think that there’s anything as nefarious as Disney’s infamous True-Life Adventures shorts of the 50s and 60s, which occasionally mixed fiction into their documenting to make the narrative better (including forcing lemmings off of a cliff to get some good shots).

Chimpanzee, even when it steps wrong, is filled with reverence for these animals. It’s a film that cares deeply about their plight and their struggles, but isn’t a film that foregrounds such ecological considerations. Instead, it’s a film that tells a good story while giving audiences an up-close (albeit G-rated) look at the way chimps behave, a chance to be Jane Goodall from the comfort of a multiplex. When the end credits reveal how the worldwide population of chimps has dwindled in the last 50 years, there’s clearly more facts to be told, but, emotionally speaking, there’s not much more to be said in that moment. Over the course of 80 minutes, we’ve spent time with them, we’ve come to love them (or had a love reinforced), and now we’re hopefully left wanting to save them.

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