The most useful message of Chimpanzee, the new Disney Nature documentary about our animal cousins in the Ivory Coast's Tai Forest, is that adorableness is a major evolutionary advantage. The film, shot by Alastair Fothergill ( African Cats, Earth) and Mark Linfeld, is assembled from some three years of shooting, and is based around the education of a young chimp who loses his mother and finds an improbable route to survival.
From a dramatic point of view though, the survival of the cutest feels like the worst excesses of dramatic scenery chewing (something at which chimps excel). Disney has taken its wonderfully intimate footage of chimpanzees in their rain forest environment and married it to a jarringly corny voice-over narration from comedian Tim Allen, and a classic Disney orphan script that seems determined to impose the plot of The Lion King on a lecture in primatology.
Close your ears, and you see something remarkable: An extended family of about three dozen chimpanzees forage and groom each other, and employ tools such as grass blades for catching ants, or sharp rocks to break nuts. We see the chimpanzees form a hunting party to get meat – the tree-top-dwelling colobus monkeys (though the camera does not show us the actual killing).
We also see the chimpanzees involved in a war with another group of chimps over a valuable grove of fruit trees. Because they are so close to humans, in both touching and disturbing ways, it would seem difficult to do anything to lessen our fascination with their behaviour. The imagery throughout is luscious, with time-lapse, slow-motion and aerial photography establishing the forest as a vibrantly alive environment.
Blend sound with sight, though, and the package becomes more difficult to take. Initially, the anthropomorphism seems reasonable to tell a child-friendly story. Our baby chimp hero is named Oscar. His patient mother, Isha, nurses him, carries him on her back and begins teaching him the rudiments of gathering food, from sticking a piece of grass into an anthill to smashing nuts with a stone. Of the chimps, we see perhaps a half-dozen with any regularity, including Freddy, the fiftyish, grizzled alpha male who leads the group.
Freddy and his band, we learn, are under threat from another band of chimps led by another male called – wait for it – Scar! Each time Scar and his "mob" are mentioned the music throbs ominously. Presumably Scar and his group have some little Oscars at home, but we're left with this dichotomy of good chimps and bad chimps. Scar and his group here function essentially like the Apaches in a western movie, hovering out of sight, attacking by night.
Though we see little of the actual battles – screeches and flurries of movement in the leaves – the intensity of the violence is soon felt. After a raid during a storm by Scar and his party, Oscar's mother, Isha is missing. She's presumed to have been wounded by the rival chimps, and subsequently killed by a leopard.
As a young chimp without a mother, Oscar's incapable of taking care of himself. He begins to lose weight, and his attempts to be adopted by another female are rebuffed. The pathos mounts. But no – Disney wouldn't do that to us.
Whether it's Oscar's persistence, or his irresistible mug, against all expectations he finds a champion in old Freddy, who, late in life, discovers a maternal side. This heart-warming turn of events was apparently as much a surprise to the filmmakers as to the viewer.
Unfortunately, when so many strings have been pulled along the way, Oscar's triumph feels contrived for dramatic impact, even though it really happened. It would hardly seem surprising to learn that Chimpanzee II: The Return of Scar was already in pre-production.
- Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
- Featuring the voice of Tim Allen
- Classification: G
- 2.5 stars