Chimpanzee continues Disney's recent tradition of releasing a new nature documentary every year around Earth Day. Over the course of these four movies under the Disneynature label, the series has moved from the general to the very specifc. From everything on Earth to just the stuff in the Oceans to a few kinds of African Cats, and finally on to Chimpanzee, which focuses on the experiences of one toddler chimpanzee given the name Oscar.
Filmed in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, the entire film stays in one small area of the Ivory Coast's rainforest as Oscar learns from his family, developing the skills he'll need as an adult. Part of a clan (lead by Freddy) of about 20 chimpanzees, the action mostly tracks them moving around their territory in search of food (nuts, fruits, and the occasional monkey) with the narrative drama provided by the dastardly Scar, leader of a neighboring—and much larger clan—who wants to take possession of Freddy's prized grove of nut trees.Chimpanzee is a "safe" documentary. Most scenes are simply showing the features of a calm day in the life of chimpanzees and looking cute doing so. Sleeping, playing, walking around, cracking nuts open with rocks. Moments of tension, such as the death of a chimpanzee or the hunting and killing of monkeys for food mostly happen off screen. Even the climactic battle between Freddy and Scar is mostly just blurred motion without a drop of blood to be seen.
As is to be expected, the photography is amazing. Unlike the awe-inspiring grand images in Oceans, this time around we get extreme close-ups of our animal relatives with plenty of time to soak in the the similarities (facial expressions all too ready for us to impose human thoughts on) and differences (I could probably watch an hour of film focused just on their feet).
Tim Allen provides the narration necessary to meld the edited pieces of footage into a narrative whole, slipping effortlessly between simply describing what is happening on screen and providing interior emotional and comedic monologues. His subdued reading is effective, and other than a brief hint when one chimpanzee upgrades from using a stick-hammer to the power tool of a rock-hammer you might not even notice that Buzz Lightyear is providing you with the technical details on how chimps eat figs.
©Walt Disney Pictures
As mentioned in reviews of Disney's previous Disneynature documentaries, I'm not a huge fan of anthropomorphizing the animal subjects—but must admit that this is a really hard thing to do with primates, so it works here in ways it didn't with African Cats. Still, if that bothers you, be warned that hardly an event passes without an emotional reason being provided for why it's happening.
©Walt Disney Pictures
Chimpanzee also continues the tradition of inducing audiences with a promise that a portion of every ticket sold during the first week of release will go to support chimpanzee conservation efforts. Wild chimpanzee populations have declined around 80 percent since 1960, so there are certainly worse things you could do with your movie ticket money this weekend.
If you do decide to check it out, plan to stay through the credits, as behind-the-scenes footage is presented. This insight into the difficulty of making such a movie as well as the actual proximity to the chimpanzees—those facial close-ups are not the result of massive lenses from the next mountain over—adds a layer of intimacy that perhaps should be allowed to seep into more nature documentaries.
Chipmanzee is a Disneynature release.
Wide theatrical release Friday, April 20.
Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
Narrated by Tim Allen
Running time: 77 minutes
Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10