“You need brains to make a living in this forest.” A series of incredibly close shots in Chimpanzee shows chimpanzees at work. They pick nuts off trees, they pound them with logs, and pick at the meat inside with their fingers. Surely, they’re exhibiting “brains,” and even, as Allen adds, making use of the “jungle toolbox” at their disposal. Still, the metaphor is strained. Yes, Tool Time‘s Tim Taylor is making a joke, but it’s creaky and old and has pretty much nothing to do with the rest of the movie.
Chimpanzee follows the storyline of a baby chimp called Oscar. When first espied in the movie, he’s just three months old, adorable and vulnerable, the lion king-ish Disney hero who will face adversity and emerge triumphant. He’s clinging to his mother, called Isha here. She dotes on him as chimp mothers do, ensuring that he has plenty of nourishment (breast milk and, as he grows older, berries she chews up and spits out as a baby-ready mush). Oscar, in turn, looks cuter and cuter, playing with his chimp friends, dangling from trees, gazing up at Isha.
Little Oscar’s life is by definition eventful, as each day holds risk, from predators and weather and scarcity of food. The difficulty is exacerbated when his mom is killed halfway through the picture (a plot point underlined in the trailers), a turn that leads to his being adopted by a male chimpanzee the filmmakers name Freddy (and whom Allen’s narration terms “large and in charge”). The filmmakers explain why this matters on in brief (and repetitive) interviews at the very end of the film, visible under the closing credits and offering a welcome look at their equipment and gear. The relationship between Freddy and Oscar is remarkable and unusual in a chimpanzee troupe, not to mention fascinating to watch. But the movie can’t seem to help itself, unable to let this story unfold on its own. Instead, it imposes all manner of dramatic structure and language and big music.
In this, Chimpanzee is too much like other overwrought Disneynature concoctions (say, African Cats), which push moral points, engineer melodrama, and lay on an overbearing music soundtrack (in particular, the twice-used Caro Emerald’s “That Man,” which bounces along with the chimps’ play, but is so lyrically unrelated as to be jarring). All this imposition detracts from the movie’s frequently brilliant cinematography, in high definition and sometimes starting slow motion, rendering details so that you might feel like you’re observing chimpanzees closely and for some time, like you’re watching a group in motion and development.
It’s possible that you might enhance some of this good material if you wait for the DVD release and turn off the soundtrack: no music and no Tim Allen would go a long way toward making this a watchable movie. But even then again, you’d notice what else it does badly, which is editing of footage that might have occurred at any time, in order to provide images for a story that did happen but might not have been filmed. So, to make visible the threat posed to the good chimpanzees (Oscar and Freddy’s troupe) by the bad chimpanzees (led by someone called Scar, of all things), you see repeated shots of the bad chimps in shadow, their faces obscured and their limbs moving through foliage. These Bad Chimps scenes are made more frightening by the use of odious musical score, but even with that sound off, you might wonder if maybe these limbs belong to any chimps, perhaps even Freddy’s group members, but when they’re presented in this way, they represent evil intent rather than just looking for berries or water.
Likewise, to make the good chimps look good—or at least like sympathetic underdogs—the film deploys close shots of their faces looking up, whether at storm clouds gathering or predators in branches above is unclear. With the sound on, it doesn’t matter, for Tim Allen tells you exactly what to think about what you see. But even without the soundtrack, you’ll notice that these shots are repeated and inserted in order to create an emotional ride for viewers.
Such manipulation isn’t specific to Chimpanzee or Disneynature or even to nature documentaries (the history of “fakery” in the genre is pretty well known). But this movie does it badly, which obscures what it does well.