Disneynature’s Chimpanzee has the makings of a great nature documentary. It takes us places other films haven’t and shows us sights we haven’t seen on any screen. Visually, it’s a triumph of intrepid nature-documentary filmmaking, with an extraordinary and heartwarming twist in the lives of a chimpanzee community. Yet, like other recent nature flicks, including Arctic Tale and African Cats, it’s wrapped in increasingly tiresome, condescending, kiddie-movie packaging. It’s like discovering a rare dish prepared by eminent chefs, drizzled with waxy treacle and stuffed in a Happy Meal box.
The chefs are Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, superstars of the nature-documentary world; their credits, jointly and severally, include the landmark BBC series Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and The Life of Mammals, along with the big-screen spin-offs Earth and Deep Blue. My appreciation for their work is immense; there are few filmmakers in whose hands I would more readily place 90 minutes of my life with as few qualms.
But Disneynature execs (who, let it be said, are funding their groundbreaking work and putting it on the big screen) don’t trust the material to connect with audiences unless it’s dumbed down and punched up into downright eye-rolling territory. I’m not unsympathetic to their concern for popular, crowd-pleasing entertainment with a family-friendly thrust. Indeed, as a father with seven kids (including one on the way), I think I can safely say that I’m more eager to see decent family fare than most Hollywood executives are to make it.
Yet believe me when I say (again as a father of seven) that you don’t have to talk down to children or dress up reality for them to be something it’s not. Kids are curious and open-minded — more so than many teenagers or adults — and they’re smarter and more sophisticated than many people give them credit for. You know, kind of like chimpanzees, but more so.
It’s one thing to give the chimps names, as Jane Goodall did in her years in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. It’s another thing to cast the conflict of the natural world with heroes and villains. In one corner, we have “Freddy and his group,” a chimpanzee community led by a dominant male in his prime who emerges as a surprisingly winsome hero without the need for any help from Tim Allen’s voice-over. In the other corner is a rival chimp community called “Scar and his gang” (or “mob” or “thugs”), and both Allen’s narration and Nicholas Hooper’s score sneer every time Scar and his gang appear, if you follow me about a score sneering.
Freddy is a benevolent leader who, “like most alpha males …couldn’t care less about the young upstarts who would just love to take over his job someday.” Scar, though, is a calculating captain struggling to maintain control of his unruly mob while he plots to move in on Freddy’s territory. When Freddy and his group groom one another, they’re “strengthening friendships,” whereas when Scar and his gang engage in grooming behavior, it’s Scar’s way of reinforcing his rank: Without the reinforcement of grooming, Scar would face mutiny.
This is the same plot template used in last year’s Disneynature outing African Cats, though that film mixed up the stereotypes a bit with counterintuitive naming: There was a "nice" pride, led by a snaggle-toothed lion named “Fang,” and a nasty rival pride encroaching on their territory, led by “Kali.” (Presumably calling the scheming evil lion “Scar” would have been a tad too obvious.)
The striking similarity of the plots — down to internal challenges to scheming Kali’s leadership in his own pride — erodes trust in the integrity of the narrative, raising questions about the extent to which Chimpanzee might be stitching together at least some semifictional moments in the editing room, not entirely unlike the blatantly fictionalized non-Disney flick Arctic Tale. Elaborations on the narration going beyond what the filmmakers could possibly know — Scar and his team having “Freddy in their sights for years”; a toothless, old male called Grandpa “turning 50 this year” — further undermine the trustworthiness of the narrative.
Which is a shame, because at the center of Chimpanzee is an extraordinary development in chimpanzee community life that really did unfold before Fothergill’s and Linfield’s cameras. The story focuses on an infant chimp nicknamed Oscar whose mother is called Isha — the Hebrew word for “woman,” for what it’s worth, given by Adam to Eve in Genesis 2. (Why Isha apparently has a Hebrew name while the males in her group are named Rufus, Freddy and Oscar is one of nature’s mysteries.)
Oscar is a bright, inquisitive youngster and a sympathetic protagonist — and when misfortune hits his community, hitting him particularly hard, it leads to moments of genuine poignancy and pathos. Then comes a gratifying twist revealing an unexpected side of chimpanzee behavior, one that goes against the normal social roles in a chimp community. There are tender, privileged shots here that are well worth the price of admission on their own.
A few times the filmmakers captured fascinating images that didn't fit the narrative and aren't explained at all, such as bright, bioluminescent fungus shining in the darkness and another fungus that releases an explosive puff of spores or something when triggered by a blow from a raindrop or other object. (High-speed footage of fungus spreading is also intercut with an incursion by Scar and his gang, a bizarre bit of anti-Scar propaganda imagery.)
I appreciate that Chimpanzee doesn’t shy away from some of the less cuddly realities about chimpanzee life, such as a tense, well-constructed sequence in which Freddy’s group carefully stalks and hunts a group of colobus monkeys and catches one (the actual eating is barely shown). I’m also grateful that the film isn’t yet another scolding lecture on endangered species and the depletion of habitats — a legitimate subject, certainly, but one that gets tiresome when it’s beaten home in every other documentary.
It’s also worth noting that where African Cats, like Arctic Tale, offered a stridently feminist-inflected narrative, with empowered heroines and bullying or inadequate males, Chimpanzee celebrates both strength and tenderness in a father-figure archetype. Positive father figures in family entertainment remain comparatively rare, and it’s gratifying to see here.
If only Allen didn’t keep elbowing us in the ribs to make sure that we get it. Seven years ago, March of the Penguins took some lumps for Morgan Freeman’s folksy narration, with its semianthropomophic take on penguin life. Compared to Chimpanzee, March of the Penguins was a model of naturalist objectivity — and it was a hit, proving that you don’t have to condescend to appeal to a wide audience. Too bad Disneynature execs haven't got the same respect for their audience that Fothergill and Linfield have for their subjects.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Chimp-on-chimp violence and menace; a dramatic scene of chimps hunting a monkey (almost nothing shown); some potentially disturbing developments involving parental separation/death and a youngster in dire straits. Might be too much for very sensitive youngsters, though none of my crew had any problem with it.