Disneynature is back with its annual Earth Day Weekend wildlife documentary. Shot on location in the rainforests of Tanzania, Chimpanzee is presented as a narrative tale about an adorable baby chimp growing up within the support group of his community, working, playing, and feasting together. Made in association with the Jane Goodall Institute and shot by painstaking camera crews over a period of months as the story-in-progress gradually emerged, it’s directed by Disneynature series veterans Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.
Narrated by Tim Allen, the film chronicles 3-year-old Oscar. Like human toddlers, he still depends on his mother for food and protection. They live in a small tribe whose dominate male is a grizzled, 50-year-old called Freddy, wandering their region in pursuit of various nuts and fruits in season, using sticks to eat termites and ants, stealing honey. But another tribe wants to muscle in on their turf, under a leader referred to as “Scar.” (His followers—apparently devoid of females or babies—are variously called “thugs,” or “his mob.”) After a clash between the two groups, Oscar’s mother goes missing; when no other nursing female will take him in, an extraordinary bond begins to unfold between orphan Oscar and alpha male Freddy. Now here’s the problem with that narration. If you’re going to anthropomorphize the chimp tribe in this scenario—that is, present them with human-like personalities—then it becomes difficult for the audience to view other similar jungle creatures as, well, food. Evidently, a principal meat source in the chimp’s diet is other, smaller monkeys, and we see Freddy and another couple of males hunt and capture one, followed by a spontaneous feast. Nothing gory is shown onscreen, of course, but the monkey victim has just as poignant a little face as baby Oscar. Aren’t there loving mothers and adorable babies in the monkey tribe too? There was no particular outcry from the children in the audience, but I was a wreck. For a family film, they could have chosen not to include the monkey hunt. Or they could have chosen to stay true to nature with a more informational narration (like Morgan Freeman in March of the Penguins) that presents the facts without straining to portray the animals as virtuous or villainous. That said, the movie is an amazing glimpse under the rainforest canopy, from the minutiae of primate society to astonishing flora like phosphorescent fungi that glow neon green in the middle of the night. And stick around for the closing credits, where the camera crew members discuss the shoot—swarming bees, surprise snakes, and all. It’s fascinating. Rated G. 78 minutes. ★★★ | LJ