Chimps as people
Anthropomorphizing is a distraction in Disney’s latest beautiful documentary
Just in time for Earth Day, Disney released its latest nature “documentary,” and it’s full of monkey business. Chimp business, actually. Co-directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (Earth), Chimpanzee chronicles the lives of one African chimp clan, with special focus on a young’un named Oscar.
I put “documentary” in quotes because this movie is by no means a purely objective depiction of chimpanzee life. The voice-over narration is filled with editorialized comments, taking plenty of liberty to make Oscar’s life seem as dramatic as possible. Plus, Tim Allen narrates, so it sounds like a Buzz Lightyear voiceover. This makes things comical, but a lot less natural-feeling. Elaborate jungle montage sequences and catchy music don’t make the film feel any more “real” either.
At first, all these embellishments were off-putting, but then I realized the film needed some artistic license to give this movie structure. Otherwise, it’d be 80 minutes of chimps swinging in trees.
Thanks to the narration, we can learn a few things. Kenny is the alpha male of Oscar’s clan, the “large and in charge” boss, as they call him. Isha is Oscar’s mother, who’s killed after a brawl with a neighboring chimp clan in a fight over territory. Left as an orphan (a familiar Disney theme), Oscar searches for a replacement within his clan.
He soon forms an unlikely mentorship with Kenny, who steps in as foster dad. The first half of the movie really tries to build Kenny’s character as the stereotypical stubborn old man figure, so that it’s extra sweet when he accepts Oscar. And it is sweet. But it’s also a stretch to believe that Kenny’s crotchety just because Allen tells us so. For the sake of your enjoyment—and that of the kids in the audience—you have to just go with his storytelling.
As skeptical as I was about the content, the movie’s visuals always overshadowed any criticisms. Disneynature films know their way around a camera, and with the lens under the canopies of the African rainforests, some beautiful stuff starts to show itself. The lush green scenery and quirky chimp faces are fun enough to watch, but the time-lapse sequences give audiences something extra to ooh and ahh at. We see mushrooms evolve into glow-in-the-dark night creatures, and rain storms depicted like choreographed dances between individual droplets. This is a movie that takes full advantage of the big screen, and it’s best experienced in front of one.
The film may dramatize Oscar’s life too much, but there’s no doubt it provides some truth about our primate cousins. With the Jane Goodall Institute co-producing the movie, there’s probably little need to fact-check.