- - Thursday, April 19, 2012

“Chimpanzee” is wonderful to watch, but horrible to listen to. The new documentary from Disney offers some of the most captivating nature photography ever presented in a feature film — and pairs it with insipid narration, cornball music and anthropomorphic zoology.

Despite its sumptuous beauty and unexpected drama, “Chimpanzee” is begging to be re-cut and presented in a way that honors the exceptional commitment of the photographers, who captured the footage deep in the vast and seemingly impenetrable forests of the Tai National Park in Ivory Coast. Perhaps “Chimpanzee” wouldn’t have been afflicted with these post-production excesses, were it not for the narratives that emerged during filming.

First, and most importantly, there is Oscar, the cute, sprightly 3-year-old chimp who is orphaned when his mother Isha is killed (by a leopard, we’re told) after their chimpanzee troupe scatters after a skirmish with a rival extended family. Oscar is shunned by the older females and young chimps of his own troupe, and too young and untrained to care for himself. He lives on the periphery of the group, wasting away and ignored until, unexpectedly, Oscar forms an attachment with the group’s alpha male that saves his life.

Tim Allen makes a hash of the voice-over narration. His natural goofiness underscores the condescending and pointless commentary, which is primarily designed to help the audience make connections between their own experiences and the life of young Oscar.

Some incredible camera work captures Oscar and his group using rudimentary tools — sticks, flat-edged rocks — to crush and open nuts. The comedy of Oscar’s flailing efforts to crack nuts with a moldering stick, as documented from multiple angles, is manifest without Mr. Allen’s chattering asides. More to the point, the jokes diminish the central point of documenting this behavior — that tool use is a skill that is passed from mother to child, not an instinctual capability. It constitutes a form of chimpanzee culture — an amazing and thought-provoking insight that could have been more developed for young moviegoers.

Worse are the aspects of the film that budding zoologists will have to unlearn. Oscar’s group is presented as peaceful, content and not acquisitive. Even their coordinated hunt of a monkey for its meat is soft-pedaled, shown without much blood being spilled or accentuating the terror of the prey. By contrast, their rival troupe is characterized as warlike and thuggish. There’s no sense that the competition for scarce resources — in this case a grove of nut trees - is a natural part of the wild world.

To the credit of the producers, Isha’s death is handled with sensitivity and grace. “Chimpanzee” is frank about the reality of death without being morbid, or dwelling on the theme of the implications for young children of losing a parent.

While some children undoubtedly will find aspects of “Chimpanzee” sad and hard to process, it’s ultimately upbeat and optimistic. Perhaps such an attitude doesn’t comport with the reality of life in the forests of Africa, but at least it will keep nightmares at bay.


TITLE: “Chimpanzee”

CREDITS: Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

RATING: G the movie is frank about death, and shows scenes of hunting and warring chimpanzee troupes

RUNNING TIME: 78 minutes


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