A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2012


2012, G, 78 mins.


A Disneynature documentary directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield


Narrated by Tim Allen

CHIMPANZEE is a new Disneynature documentary that’s about as natural as RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.  

That perhaps is a bit of sarcastic hyperbole on my part, because there is certainly some astoundingly intimate footage that directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (the former who directed AFRICAN CATS and the pair in tandem directed EARTH) capture in their look at chimpanzees of the dense forests of Africa’s Ivory Coast.  CHIMPANZEE, at times, is another home run on a pure visual level of audience immersion: it provides many patient and observant moments of the day-to-day grinds of chimpanzee behavior set amidst the backdrop of the dense jungle ecosystem surrounding them.  Films like this deserve to be seen on as big of a screen as possible. 

Where the documentary fails, I think, more than any of the previous Disneynature releases is in how it betrays any semblance of raw authenticity it wants to relay with a voiceover narration track that reduces these primal creatures to something adorably right out of an animated film.  CHIMPANZEE seems to go out of its way to artificially concoct a narrative out of what really appears to be random footage.  Being a product of Disney Pictures, I can wholeheartedly understand why the makers wished to appease family audiences and, more crucially, wee young tykes in the theater chairs.  Unfortunately, adding on layer upon layer of G-rated cuteness – which is ostensibly caused by a steady stream of storybook-like explanations provided by Tim Allen – only serves to devalue our understanding of what makes these primitive jungle dwellers really tick.  The chimpanzees become less authentic, per se, as the film progresses because, in the end, it reduces them to cartoonish extremes. 

The opening shots of the film – highlighting a heavenly-like layer of misty fog draped over the endless expanse of African trees and hills – are mesmerizing.  From there we are introduced to a baby chimp named “Oscar” that is raised by his mother Isha and is part of a larger tribe headed by its alpha male, Freddie.  Daily life for Oscar is typified by his mother teaching him how to feed, groom himself and climb trees.  Without his mother, Oscar would most certainly not be able to fend for himself, let alone protect himself from the random attacks of another nearby Chimpanzee clan, led by Scar.  I’m not sure what makes Scar’s clan evil, other than the fact that the film's ominous musical cues and Tim Allen’s somber inflections tell me that there are. 

The one enthralling direction the documentary takes occurs when Oscar’s mother is killed by one of Scar’s invasions, which leaves Oscar an orphan and all alone in the world.  Even though chimpanzees have long be considered by scientists to be altruistic creatures (at least when they wish to be), it’s clear that the other mothers of Oscar’s clan have very little time to look after his needs when they have their own young to tend to.  When it appears that poor little Oscar may be left alone to die, the elder Freddie slowly takes in Oscar and adopts him.  According to the filmmakers, this is the first documented time ever on film that an altruistic act of compassion – and perhaps non-maternal love - by a chimpanzee has been recorded. 



Entering the raw and uncharted minutia of this species is what makes CHIMPANZEE tolerable.  I was enthralled by how…well…human-like the chimps' family circles are, from the relationship between mother and son and how the oldest and wisest of the clan acts as a surveyor of threats and organizes all into defensive action when enemies present themselves.  Even smaller and quieter aspects of the chimps’ activities – like the precise manner that they find just the right natural tool to help them crack open nuts or grab insects on a stick for a quick snack or how they wash fruit before devouring it – is revelatory in their own rights.   When the film doesn’t hone in on the animals themselves, we are given some extraordinary time lapse photography showing exotic sights as far-ranging as a spider constructing its web, fluorescent mushrooms twinkling in the night, and a magnificent sunrise vista that will take your breath away.    

Again, CHIMPANZEE is a tour de force film on a level of its sumptuous imagery.  Yet, instead of just simply showing the species in all their natural wonder we are given are constant torrent of explanations by Allen to nearly everything we see on screen.  Do we really need, for example, Allen engaging in a fairly infantile commentary track saying things like “Yum yum” when the chimps are eating or “What a moron” when one chimp’s nut cracking tool is essentially stolen by one of his brothers?  As the documentary goes on we are forced to endure more and more and more of Allen’s fairly gag-inducing witticisms that would only make a 5-year-old child giggle.  I would like to think that animals living in the fairly dangerous wild would not be as inviting and adorable Allen lets on. 

Just consider one sequence in the film where Oscar’s family hunts the much smaller and weaker monkeys of the jungle, captures one, and then devours the pathetic creature in one big communal eating binge.  You never see the monkey caught, killed, and then savored and eaten on screen by Oscar’s clan because that would most likely send young viewers screaming for the exits.  Most of the Disneynature docs have lamentably shied away from animal-on-animal carnage in one form or another, but CHIMPANZEE takes great inordinate pains to make its subjects as huggable as teddy bears while, at the same time, show these creatures as ravenous beasts that are willing to indiscriminately kill other jungle dwellers for the sake of a mid-day treat.  The approach here rings as both contradictory and a bit hollow minded. 

Something else dawned on me while film wound down to a close.  We are shown a small little documentary placed adjacent to the scrolling end credits that highlights the directors’ arduous task of trekking through the bug and rain infested jungles in order to film the typically reclusive - at least to humans – chimpanzees.  The efforts of these intrepid filmmakers took reportedly over three years of trial and error, not to mention finding the right means to get as close to these creatures as possible to film them without overtly disrupting them.  I knew CHIMPANZEE was in trouble when I found this end-credit footage infinitely more enthralling than what preceded it.  The film has moments of genuine interest, but what’s missing in abundance here is the way great animal docs examine and capture behavior.  Do we really need astounding footage like this sullied by a finessed and child-placating narrative track?  Didn't think so, which leaves CHIMPANZEE coming off as just silly monkey business.


CrAiGeR's other 



EARTH  (2009 jjj


OCEANS  (2010 jjj1/2


AFRICAN CATS  (2011 jj1/2





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