National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

In Theaters Now: 'Chimpanzee' and 'Mirror Mirror'

Animal Documentary and Snow White Story Are Latest Family Films

BY Steven D. Greydanus

Register Film Critic

May 6-19, 2012 Issue | Posted 4/26/12 at 4:54 PM


Disneynature’s Chimpanzee has the makings of a great nature documentary. The filmmakers are Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, superstars of the nature-documentary world. 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. 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.

The story focuses on an infant chimp nicknamed Oscar. 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.

I appreciate that Chimpanzee doesn’t shy away from some of the less cuddly realities about chimpanzee life. Also, 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 narrator Tim Allen didn’t keep elbowing us in the ribs to make sure that we get it.

Also in theaters is Mirror Mirror, a whimsical, riotous movie with a visual brilliance unlike any other family film in recent memory.

The story itself is uneven and not always quite as family-friendly as advertised, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent family film that was more worth the price of admission to see on a big screen.

The look of Mirror Mirror begins with Snow White’s fairy-tale castle, an elaborate cluster of spires and onion domes overtly inspired by Antonin Gaudí’s surreal Sagrada Família Church in Barcelona crossed with the Taj Mahal or St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

The film opens with a beautifully imagined prologue using porcelain dolls to portray the traditional back story of Snow White’s birth, her kindly royal father’s disastrous remarriage and tragic end — though with a narrative twist provided by arch voice-over narration courtesy of the evil Queen herself.

After that, though, the story goes its own way. Naturally, Snow progresses from being a naive, docile creature to a full-fledged sword-wielding heroine taking on the evil Queen and her magic. The Prince is a somewhat comic figure, though not as lacking in dignity and self-awareness as, say, Prince Edward in Enchanted. Still, he’s upright and honorable and strong enough that both Snow and the Queen pursue him for practical as well as personal reasons. Julia Roberts is amusingly nasty and catty as the Queen. Alas, the humor is occasionally somewhat risqué.

Fortunately, Snow herself is a winsome heroine, and her romance with the Prince is both sweet and innocent. Better still, her hero’s journey is neither a quest of self-empowerment nor a mere romantic quest, but is rooted in something nobler.

Mirror Mirror certainly isn’t a perfect film, but it’s closer in spirit to what a Hollywood fairy tale should be than anything anyone else is even trying to do these days.

Steven D. Greydanus is the
Register’s film critic.

Content Advisory: Chimpanzee: 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. Mirror Mirror: Some mildly frightening moments and action violence; mild rude humor; risqué humor; a sequence of gross-out humor; depictions of theft. Tweens and up.