For most of its slim 78 minute runtime, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield‘s Chimpanzee focuses on the daily minutiae of a large group of chimpanzees living in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest – their eating habits, sleeping patterns, and how they interact on a social level. It’s not particularly exciting, but it is interesting and it does serve an important purpose when the film finally gets to the meat of its story – it serves to lull its audience into a false sense of safety. Centered primarily on a three-year-old chimp named Oscar and his mother Isha, the film certainly benefits from its built-in “awww” factor, because baby Oscar is both adorable and engaging. Despite the fact that his family unit includes other baby chimps, there’s no question as to why Fothergill and Linfield trained their film on young Oscar, even before we get to the heart of the story (which requires a focus on Oscar) – he’s a star.
A G-rated film from Disneynature, Chimpanzee provides a charming slice-of-life look at Oscar, Isha, and their family group’s daily existence that should amuse family members of all ages. While it does come packaged with some overly-humanizing narration work by Tim Allen, the film eventually turns into a production with an eye-opening plot and a very incredible story to tell. Though the threat of the “evil” chimp Scar and his band of “soldiers” is ever-lurking, and a bit too much time is spent hammering home the point that baby Oscar is totally dependent on his mother, when Chimpanzee (finally) finds an actual plot, it’s not precisely shocking, but damn if it doesn’t sting.
While the final act of any film is usually off-limits when it comes to a review, Disneynature has made no bones about advertising what ultimately happens to Oscar – both because it’s cinematically exciting and because it’s an incredibly rare occurrence, captured on film or not. But, for the sake of viewers looking to go into the film somewhat fresh – spoilers ahead! After all that lulling and all that lack of a plot, Chimpanzee takes a wild “only in nature!” turn before its third act – a dazzling rainstorm hammers Oscar’s group, providing enough of a distraction for Scar and his group to move in and attack, and it is during that attack that Oscar is separated from his mother, who goes missing and is never seen again. While this could frame up the most heart-smacking bits of the film, Fothergill and Linfield treat the situation in the most matter-of-fact manner possible. Baby Oscar needs his mother, Isha is gone, what will happen to baby Oscar?
To be sure, Disneynature isn’t going to center a film on a three-year-old chimp who dies during production, but what happens to Oscar is truly unexpected and, for lack of a better word, pretty miraculous. Fothergill, Linfield, and their team have captured a very rare instance of intraspecies adoption that, though known to happen, only does so in a very limited fashion and which has never been caught on film before. In short, get your hankies ready, folks.
Technically speaking, the film is breathtaking – made up of crisp and clear long shots, intimate peeks inside the rainforest, and a wealth of consistently used time-lapse footage that is jaw-dropping. The access that the Chimpanzee crew was able to secure is truly incredible, and it is unfortunate that we only learn more about it through an end-credits featurette.
Yet the film’s most inescapable piece of production is Allen’s narration which is, on a basic level, very amusing. But Allen does not just narrate about events, he narrates through them, putting words and thoughts into the chimps’ mouths and brains – and while some of those words and thoughts seem to be pretty self-evident, it still ascribes a level of anthropomorphism to the pack that will make audience members looking for veracity feel uncomfortable and short-shrifted. The over-the-top narration is noticeably more evident in Chimpanzee than in Disneynature’s previous film, African Cats; whereas African Cats dealt with many of the same elements as Chimpanzee - wild animals scraping by, imminent death, threats from all around – there was something significantly more menacing (and, honestly, heart-wrenching) about that film. African Cats didn’t come with a light-hearted narration like Chimpanzee does, and while its inclusion in this production might remove some of the harder elements of the film, it does make it feel much more accessible and appropriate for the film’s widest audience – children.
The Upside: Baby Oscar is undeniably adorable, the camerawork is stunning, the film unearths an unbelievable true story, and it’s a wonderful film to show to animal-crazed kiddos who are looking for more complex stories.
The Downside: Despite the fact that the film’s central story is miraculous on its own, the film’s other elements frequently feel far too produced – from Tim Allen’s words-in-mouth narration to some heavy-handed storytelling.
On the Side: For every person that sees Chimpanzee in the movie theater during opening week, Disneynature will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute to help protect chimpanzees and their habitats in the wild.