'Chimpanzee': Oh, The Humanity!

Apr 19, 2012

It's a classic scenario in sentimental fiction: An adorable orphan humanizes a crusty old codger. "Humanize" might not seem the obvious verb for what happens in Chimpanzee, Disneynature's latest kiddie documentary. But it's dead on; this escape to the planet of the apes is anthropomorphic to a fault.

The story, delivered excitedly by narrator Tim Allen, is about a "precious baby boy," given the only-in-Hollywood tag of Oscar by filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. They call the baby's mother Isha, and the local chimp patriarch Freddy. The leader of a nearby chimp "mob" that threatens Freddy's clan is outfitted with the name Scar (although not with Jeremy Irons' voice).

After Isha's off-screen death — only partially the fault of Scar and his gang — Oscar is abandoned. None of the other moms in the 35-chimp tribe is prepared to take responsibility for another hungry baby. But before he starves to death, Oscar is adopted by an older male chimp, which is apparently a rare occurrence.

In brief interviews at the movie's end, the filmmakers say that the story is basically authentic. But even if the narrative's outline is true, that doesn't mean the details are accurate. It's impossible to tell if Allen's commentary always reflects what the images show.

For example, the movie was shot primarily in the Ivory Coast's remote Tai Forest. But the filmmakers, who are BBC nature-doc veterans, also worked in Uganda and Gabon. Did the secondary locations yield only the psychedelic time-lapse footage of rain, insects and mutating vegetation? Or are some of the on-screen chimps actually ringers from another jungle altogether?

Such questions make Chimpanzee a frustrating experience for adults. But the movie is designed for kids, who may not mind its oversimplifications, or narration that terms edible leaves "side salad" and makes reference to the chimps' family photos. And children familiar with Disney cartoons probably won't balk at the scenes edited to suggest that the chimps are jiving to Caro Emerald's neo-retro jazz ditty "That Man."

Yet the movie will be problematic for children as well, and not only because the hero's mother meets a violent end. The omnivorous chimps don't consume just the leaves, nuts and pulpy fruit with which the narration has such fun. There's a sequence, impressively constructed but chilling, in which Freddy's clan hunts, kills and eats a colobus monkey.

Primate fans who were saddened by Project Nim should be pleased to see chimps at play in their natural habitat in Fothergill and Linfield's impressively intimate footage. For such viewers, much of Chimpanzee will be a treat. But perhaps the best strategy for enjoying the movie would be to a) leave sensitive tykes at home and b) bring a portable music player to provide an alternative soundtrack.

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