The Disneynature documentaries had me initially. Their first two releases, Earth and Oceans, were marvellous films; I was especially taken with the latter, not only because it was a spectacular showcase of underwater footage but also because it raised awareness about the negative and positive effects we have on the environment. But then came last year’s African Cats, and while the visuals were undoubtedly stunning, I believed the film-makers went too far in their efforts to make it a dramatic narrative, which sort of goes against what documentaries set out to do. Now we have Chimpanzee. Although it suffers from some of the same problems as African Cats, namely the use of inherently manipulative narrative techniques, the film is a definite improvement. If they keep it up, Disneynature might have me again completely by next year.
Filmed over three years in the rainforests of the Ivory Coast and Uganda, Chimpanzee documents the life of a young chimp named Oscar. I have no way of knowing if his name – and, indeed, all the names applied to the chimps appearing in this film – was bestowed by Disney, the film-makers, or someone working for the Jane Goodall Institute, the latter being one of the production entities. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, seeing as names do make it much easier to identify specific subjects. Oscar is raised by his mother, Isha, in a tribe of chimps ruled over by the alpha male, Freddy. Survival depends in part on knowing where to gather food, and it’s the time of year when nuts are ready for harvesting. Unfortunately, this nut tree is located away from the safety of their territory, where they will be vulnerable to a rival tribe of chimps led by the aged Scar (a name that surely must have been influenced by Disney).
One of Scar’s attacks results in Isha getting separated from Oscar. Although we see nothing, narrator Tim Allen plainly states that Isha sustained heavy injuries and ultimately died. Oscar, being too young to fend for himself, becomes desperately malnourished. He’s rejected by the other mothers of the tribe, as they have their own children to look after. Astonishingly, he’s eventually taken in by Freddy, who up until then showed not the slightest interest in any of the young chimps, let alone Oscar. He feeds him, grooms him, and lets him ride on his back, just as mom used to do. But Freddy’s new-found paternal instincts threaten the safety of the tribe; he isn’t as watchful and attentive as he once was. Will he be able to protect his chimps from Scar and his tribe?
The film is at its best when it shows the chimps engaging in their daily rituals, including grooming, foraging for food, and using rocks, logs, and twigs as primitive tools. The latter allows for a few scenes of levity. It takes the right tools and years of practice to be able to crack a nut open, and it’s obvious that some chimps aren’t as quick to learn as others. One chimp has the darnedest time trying to open a nut with a log. It’s the wrong tool for the job; the fragile wood repeatedly breaks into pieces. Even when he finally figures out that only a rock can crack a nut, he learns the hard way that the other chimps aren’t familiar with the concept of sharing. If you leave a tool unattended, someone will come along and take it. And then there are the chimps that choose the wrong rocks, which are quite susceptible to chipping and end up doing nothing to the nut.
Allen’s narration is easily the most unique of the Disneynature documentaries. This isn’t to say it’s the most successful. Although he has a pleasant and distinct style of delivery, and although he generally gets by, there’s a casual quality to his voice that somehow doesn’t quite do the material justice. There’s a presence, but there isn’t much authority. There are times when he piles on the comedy a little too thickly, as when he verbalizes a chimp’s “thoughts” on the basis of its actions. It’s amusing at best, although it doesn’t take long before it comes off as disingenuous to the genre and condescending to the film-makers, who clearly put a lot of time and effort into capturing the footage.
Indeed, there’s a compelling (if brief) montage of behind-the-scenes footage shown during the end credits, in which we clearly see the film-makers struggling with thick foliage, uneven terrain, and insect invasions. Even then, it’s shown in the best possible light; everyone who appears on camera is usually laughing. It’s obvious that Chimpanzee was nothing if not a labour of love. The screening I attended was introduced by executive producer Don Hahn, who told the audience that some of the film was shot while Uganda was in the middle of a civil war. That in and of itself would have made for a very interesting documentary, but I won’t go off on a tangent. While not the best of Disneynature’s offerings, Chimpanzee is informative, entertaining, and visually striking.
Written by Chris Pandolfi