Film Review: Chimpanzee

'Chimpanzee' is 'Bambi' for simians, but--spoiler alert--with a less trauma-inducing mother loss, especially for the audience.

In Chimpanzee, Disneynature’s fourth annual entry for Earth Day, blame nature herself if you think the storyline is just too schmaltzy. But praise Alastair Fothergill (“Planet Earth”) of the BBC’s Natural History Unit for taking a leave of absence in order to make a film about chimpanzees, an endangered species. One is particularly at risk: Oscar, a baby chimp.

The movie begins in the midst of a lush forest which could be from eons ago or today. The African forestation is an all-encompassing green, even unrelievedly so at times when the camera pulls back. Later in the film, the technical team at Disneynature really outdoes itself, breaking it up with glowing phosphorescent mushrooms, extreme close-ups of army ants, and tight shots of toadstools emitting their puffiness.

By then, we’re deep into the narrative, caught up in the plight of a suddenly motherless three-year-old chimp, the youngest member of a clan headed by Freddy. He has successfully fought off an invading band of marauders led by rival chimp Scar and what the film calls Scar’s “thugs.” But Oscar’s mom got permanently lost in the melee.

The strong and trustworthy Freddy, though not his biological dad (as far as we know), ends up taking care of Oscar the orphan. Oscar is too young to have learned how to forage for himself without his mother, and probably won’t survive. Other female chimps are too busy with their own progeny, so Freddy eventually becomes a hands-on single parent, finds his female side, and provides all nurturing functions: pillaging for food and teaching Oscar how to do the same, grooming his young charge for bugs, even letting him ride on his back. Unlike Bambi’s father figure, the dignified if remote advice-giving stag of the 1942 classic, Freddy’s having to juggle it all puts some stress on his day job. And when Scar and the rival gang make another surprise raid on the rich nut grove Freddy and his group depend on for food, Freddy has to quickly regroup, and re-bond with his own lieutenants.

Chimpanzee’s anthropomorphism can get heavy-handed, the family values of teamwork and loyalty sometimes overstated. Oscar is already endearing; we don’t need to have him referred to as a “boy.” Besides, are some chimpanzees really good and others terribly evil? When lost in the forest primeval, how can you know who’s a well-mannered chimp and who’s not? And if so, how did Jane Goodall, whose institute partnered with Disneynature to get this film made, countenance this notion?

Not to worry. We have the comforting narrative tones of Tim Allen, whose smooth and homey delivery we will recognize from Toy Story if not television’s “Home Improvement.” On occasion he gets a bit hokey; you and your sophisticated five-year-old companion will groan when Allen enthuses, “Yum, bugs on a stick.” (Let’s be fair; Fothergill wrote the script.)

Allen’s easygoing optimism fits the events of the film as they unfold, which the filmmakers—who briefly appear at the very end of the movie—tell us was nearly jettisoned. Their mission was to follow Oscar and the clan. But when your lead monkey almost goes under, he may take the film with him. Chimp understudy? Not too many at Central Casting. Yet like all good documentarians, when things start to go in another direction—ape bonding which might make Darwin rethink matters—you keep filming and you’ve got your movie after all.
As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. But then they didn’t have to.