Disneynature’s Chimpanzee | Film review
In nature films, like most commercial documentaries, balancing fact with entertainment can be a delicate negotiation. Chimpanzee, a family-friendly doc film from Disney Studio’s first branded imprint in more than 60 years, is no exception. The animals are overly anthropomorphized and given cute names, while goofball narrator Tim Allen assigns them emotions, personality traits and motives for their behavior.
Directed by Disneynature vets Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, Chimpanzee tells the tale of Oscar, a playful Ivory Coast chimp-tot who forages the forest with his mother Isha and spends his days clowning around with his pint-sized peers. Quiet scenes of the animals using simple tools, hunting as a coordinated team and grooming each other to maintain social order drive home their intelligence and the complexities of chimp society, which threatens to fall apart when a rival group invades their territory.
When Oscar’s mother is killed in battle, the little chimp is left orphaned until alpha leader Freddy steps in to care for the lonely tot. While the filmmakers struck narrative gold with this unlikely adoption—a male chimp accepting an orphan as his own is extremely rare—some of nature’s facts had to be sacrificed for the greater good of a Disney-worthy narrative.
At a special advance screening earlier this week, which included researchers from Saint Xavier University and the Lincoln Park Zoo, executive producer and Tinley Park native Don Hahn revealed that Scar, leader of the seemingly aggressive enemy group, never actually encountered Oscar’s group—Scar and company were filmed far away in Uganda while Oscar's troupe resided deep in Ivory Coast's forests. In addition, Scar and his chimpatriots were evidently a more docile bunch than they were portrayed in Chimpanzee. This bit of make-do splicing, it was explained, became necessary when civil war broke out unexpectedly in the Ivory Coast and the crew had to relocate to Uganda. Impeccable editing makes for a seamless pairing of these geographically disparate groups, and generates welcome narrative tension. But it also threatens to undermine the credibility of the rest of the film, most notably this astounding and rare adoption the crew was able to capture.
Kids won’t likely care; the endearing humanlike heroes of the film and Oscar’s bittersweet tale of redemption will win their hearts over regardless. Parents, too, probably won’t mind the factual sacrifices after taking in Chimpanzee’s amazing cinematography, which includes aerial views of breathtaking African landscapes and time-lapsed photography that shows the chimps’ jungle habitat as a colorful, very much alive and thriving ecosystem.
Chimpanzee opens Friday, April 20. For each viewer who sees Chimpanzee during opening week, Disneynature will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute to help protect chimps and their habitats.