Really good nature photography is a special effect that never gets old, especially when the camera is trained on creatures or climates inaccessible to the rest of us. So for all of Chimpanzee's faults as a people-pleasing Disney "documentary" hellbent on building a kid-friendly narrative, it contains enough stunning footage of the chimps and their jungle habitat to remain engrossing, even while it's insulting your intelligence.
Cribbing a bit too much from classic Disney narratives like Bambi and The Lion King to feel believably true, Chimpanzee chooses as its hero Oscar, a young chimp living in a pack of about 35 in the jungles of… well, it's never said where in Africa they are, but the credits mention Ivory Coast and Ugandan crews, so let's go with that. Through Oscar we learn about chimp rituals of grooming and playtime among the young ones, plus the intense bond between Oscar and his mother Isha, who teaches him how to crack nuts and forage for berries and all the other necessary chimp life lessons. Eventually we're introduced to a rival gang led by--no kidding-- a chimp named Scar, with a "mob" of "thugs" determined to cut into the territory of Oscar's crew.
This shameless setup of an antagonist is against pretty much everything more honest nature programs will tell you, and the careful focus on Oscar and his mother vs. Scar and his aggressive males outrageously tips the scales, giving no indication that Oscar will likely grow up to be an aggressive male himself. The cornball, jokey narration from Tim Allen is generally acceptable under the "kids will like it" clause, but every time he refers to Scar and company in menacing tones, it eliminates any sense of Chimpanzee as authentic. The photography makes up for a lot of it-- particularly sped-up shots of growing fungi to give a sense of nature's authentic menace-- and directors Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield clearly know their way around the jungle. But the lack of nuance is maddening if TV programs like Planet Earth or Frozen Planet have taught you to expect more.
A twist late in the film leads Oscar to an unexpected, and actually authentic, relationship with another chimp in his tribe, and that serendipitous bit of reality makes Chimpanzee worth it-- in the credits the filmmakers talk about how moved they were by the moment, and it's clear this is something they, and we, are lucky to witness. And Oscar himself is undeniably cute, his tight relationship with his mom undeniably touching, and the chimpanzee rituals undeniably fascinating-- with no embellishment from Allen or the directors needed. Chimpanzee gets credit for avoiding the obligatory "and here is how we are destroying this habitat" ending, and for giving the camera over entirely to the chimpanzees and their stunning world. But when a crew is given such incredible access, then masks it with lowbrow narration and a overly simple story, it's something of a waste-- even kids are up for something a little more sophisticated.
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