Now available on video, “Chimpanzee” is a Disneynature film which reminds this particular old crock of the Disney short subjects of the 1950s, later replayed ad infinitum on TV’s “Wonderful World of Disney.” A “G”-rated movie, it is clearly aimed at kids, but there is much here for adults to enjoy. It’s a well made piece, using classical cinematic techniques to produce a story that is entertaining and informative.
Directors/writers/producers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, ably supported by cinematographer Martyn Colbeck and film editor Andy Netley, stitch together a narrative out of many separate pieces. As a short “making of” snippet that plays beside the closing credits demonstrates, this was a labor of love, as well as of endurance and persistence. The crew had to push through deep forest an hour every day in order to reach the group of 35 or so chimpanzees that the story follows. I’m guessing that the post production back in London was equally demanding, albeit less painful. (We watch as the crew gets attacked by bees, bitten by army ants, dodges poisonous snakes, and generally slogs its way through the Ivory Coast’s terrain.)
They focus on young “Oscar,” a three-month-old chimp who is about as cute as it gets. He clings to his mother, Isha, and stays clear of the leader of the pack, Freddy, who is aptly described as “large and in charge.” We watch a typical day—the result of many months of filming—as the group searches for food, raises its young, and works as a team to protect and survive in its favored territory. A neighboring band under the leadership of “Scar,” provides the antagonist, appearing at intervals to threaten the peaceful existence of Oscar’s group.
At one critical point, during a raid by Scar’s group—always termed “mob,” or “gang” or “thugs”—Isha is injured and, evidently, killed by a leopard, another constant danger for the chimps. Here and in a segment showing the band hunting, killing, and eating a monkey, the film refuses to prettify life in the forest, though it is careful to avoid close attention to the goriest moments. The “G” rating is consistently appropriate.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that Freddie adopts the young orphan Oscar, an action totally out of keeping with normal chimpanzee behavior, the filmmakers marvel. (I suspect that his doing so gave the humans the basic idea for the story.) The unusual relationship involves the giant Freddie grooming, carrying, and protecting the “little boy.” At the film’s climax, Freddie fends off Scar in a mano a mano combat, filmed for excitement and enhanced by Nicholas Hooper’s musical score.
I have to mention what a visual treat “Chimpanzee” is: helicopter shots of the forest canopy, the gorgeous waterfalls, the deep green of the trees—all these sometimes give the appearance of being filmed in 3-D. So you get the pleasure without the annoying glasses. And Tim Allen’s understated narration, reading from a script that resembles a children’s book, adds greatly to the pleasure. (Allen fans will also pick up some clever allusions to “Home Improvement,” his long-running TV comedy.)
“Chimpanzee” will not be for everybody, but it could be for anybody. The kids may get restless at points where the narrative drags; however, the adults may find these moments thoughtful and engaging. The filmmakers paste on a moral about teamwork bringing down brute force, though the story doesn’t really justify that. Still, it can’t hurt for the kids to hear it and have it delivered in an entertaining way.