For the past four years Disneynature has produced a documentary the weekend of Earth Day. In 2009, “Earth” came out, followed by “Oceans” and “African Cats.” Their newest documentary which came out April 20 is called “Chimpanzee.”
“Chimpanzee” is a wonderful movie full of scenes of rarely visited regions in the jungles of Africa. It takes audience members deep into the habitats of wild animals that overcome struggles with themselves and the society they live in.
The film follows one young chimp in particular named Oscar as he learns to survive in the African jungle. His mother, Isha, is responsible for his education until he’s five. With Tim Allen narrating, the audience watches him grow from a baby chimp who can barely climb a sapling, to one who can swing through the trees in pursuit of his friends.
Oscar and 25 other chimpanzees eat together, nap together and hunt together. The alpha male of the group is named Freddie, who leads the group in search of food each day.
Watching little Oscar grow up is truly beautiful, and it’s amusing watching him trying to mimic the adults. “Monkey see, monkey do” (technically, it should be ape) applies to Oscar perfectly. Five minutes of the film are dedicated to simply watching him try and fail to crack open a single nut. First he tries a stick, then a branch, and finally goes for a rock to crack it open. Humorous moments like these result in Oscar having a small tantrum, like any child would, which is so much fun to watch.
Oscar’s mom is killed in a dispute over territory boundaries between Freddie’s pack and another group under the command of an ape named Scar. Oscar is orphaned, and at a very young age, he is dependent and alone. None of the other adult females will take him in, as they have their own babies to care for. The plot of the story takes an emotional twist when Freddie, the highest ranked male, adopts Oscar, the lowest ranked male.
Freddie grooms and teaches Oscar, who had become malnourished, to find food. At times it would have been best to silence Allen and let the chimp’s actions speak for themselves. For example, when the adult chimps are annoyed with the younger ones for being loud during the adult’s nap time, the audience does not need any help from Allen describing to them what’s happening.
Another thing Disneynature shouldn’t do is manipulate the audience’s feelings. Scar’s assigned name makes him instantly disliked – simply because he was given a cruel name by a filmmaker. Freddie, on the other hand, is a kind name that forces the audience to root for him. Scar’s group of chimps was never shown with baby chimps or recognizable females, and it was always referred to as an “army” or a “gang.” There are no good or evil monkey cults in the jungles of Africa. Disneynature simply added this to thicken the plot and make the chimps more relatable to a human audience, which isn’t true to nature at all.
The word choice used by Allen also swayed the audience’s feelings. Whenever Freddie crossed the border between the two territories, they were simply “searching for food.” When Scar and his chimps crossed the border, they were “invaders,” or “attackers,” even though their main drive was the search for food as well.
This was also a problem in Disneynature’s movie “African Cats.” There were two groups consisting of lions and lionesses, and one was painted in a positive light while the other was the bad guy. “Earth” and “Oceans” were wildly popular, and made large profits, while “African Cats” failed to attract moviegoers. It’s too early to tell how “Chimpanzee” compares to the other Disneynature films, but its storyline is easily much more entertaining than 2010’s “African Cats”.
Among other things, “Chimpanzee” is an educational film. The filmmakers catch footage of how the chimps make their nests to sleep in, how they eat their fruit, how they crack open nuts to eat and, most disturbingly, how they hunt. Chimpanzees are not herbivores, they will eat meat. One of Animal Planet’s favorite topics is how the chimps will set up a strategic attack to get their prey, which sometimes includes monkeys. There’s a chase scene in “Chimpanzee” where Freddie leads an attack to get a monkey. The attackers are adult males, and they work together to bring down their prey. Once the monkey is dead, the whole group of chimpanzees eat it, but the camera steers clear of the actual corpse, in the expected family-friendly fashion.
From beginning to end, “Chimpanzee” is exciting and entertaining. Chimps are mankind’s closest relative, and there isn’t that much difference between a baby chimp and a baby human, which is what makes the movie so much fun to watch. If it weren’t for Allen’s ubiquitous comments and word usage, “Chimpanzee” would be the perfect documentary.
Three out of Four Stars
Disneynature Through the Years
Founded in 2008, Disneynature has released four documentaries in the U.S. before Chimpanzee. Here are their top three grossing films.