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Movie Review: Chimpanzee

April 20, 2012

There is no denying that Chimpanzee is a joy to watch. Clocking in at just over an hour, it is engaging, stunningly beautiful, and even made me temporarily want one (well, a baby that doesn’t have superhuman strength yet, at least).

It is only about what the title implies and contains a surprising absence of propaganda. There is no commentary about saving wildlife and not a peep about global warming. My screening didn’t even include a “1-800″ number to call and donate money to. If you go see this on opening weekend, however, a portion of your ticket will be going to the Jane Goodall Institute, so maybe they are saving the phone number for the DVD.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am 100% for donating money to charities and devastated about how we treat the environment. I am also consistently annoyed about being told what to think and reminded of the state of our world every time I read the news. It is refreshing to see a film optimistic about nature, and not something infused with a message, eventually making me feel more disheartened than I already do.

This movie is just trying to give its audience the opportunity to observe a species that most of us will only get to see, in real life, behind the glass of a zoo cage. It is about their day to day life: how they search for food, where they sleep, how they barter, and most adorably, how their children learn.

Watching these creatures use tools to smash nuts, play with their food, and struggle to find the comfy spot that will cure their insomnia is a huge portion of what makes this film so much fun to watch. The main appeal, though, is Oscar, a youthful chimpanzee who will evoke immediate “aw’s” the moment he is seen onscreen. He has more personality than the majority of people I meet on a day to day basis. He lives to climb stuff and jump on his elders, he loves to steal food from his mom, and he is curious about everything that the grownups are doing. Basically, he is the average toddler.

If that wasn’t enough, it is directed by Alastair Fothergill who produced some of the most breathtaking nature documentaries ever made, including “Planet Earth”, and “The Blue Planet”. He has been called the “Spielberg of nature films,” which I believe is not only a reflection of his well-made, consistently crowd pleasing filmography, but also due to his ability to take something inhuman and show an audience its soul.

Here’s the problem:

Someone didn’t pick up on how awesome this guy (and his team) really are. The narration by Tim Allen should have complemented the images flickering on the screen shedding insight on the species, instead it dumbs down nearly every frame. The film is marketed to kids, but a more graceful narration could have built on the awe and wonderment of this foreign world and, lets be honest, these chimps are so cute that they are going to intrigue children regardless of what’s said.

Due to Disneynature’s need to overly humanize these chimps, we are left with nothing more than a sugary G-rated family narrative, or maybe more accurately an episode of “Meerkat Manor”. The already child-like Oscar is trivialized into the protagonist in a conventional coming-of-age story. He is accompanied by Aisha, his mommy who is a portrait of motherhood and Gramps who is the quirky, toothless old guy and can be described solely by his name. There is also Freddie: the stern, but always decent leader of the tribe who could most easily be summed up as the primate version of Bambi’s dad. These, as well, as a handful of others are shaped into just a community of decent chimpanzees trying to get by. They help take care of one another and it is established that team work is one of their greatest attributes. They are, for all due purposes, the good guys. Yep, the good guys.

The bad guys live on the other side of the tracks, I mean jungle, and their leader is not as honorable as the beloved Freddie. He is even given the villainous name, Scar, and his tribe is described a whole lot like a gang of bullies trying to steal Freddie’s land. Survival of the fittest is not a factor, instead it is a battle between good and evil. I’ll leave out any potential spoilers on who ultimately prevails, just remember it is a Disney movie.

Fundamentally, there is a beautiful film in here and some stuff definitely worth seeing (especially if you are a nature doc geek like me). Unfortunately, Chimpanzee‘s narration tries so hard to parallel its world with our reality that it oftentimes feels less like a documentary and more like a well-executed hoax. This is bittersweet considering these chimps would be so captivating to watch even without a single syllable spoken.

In fact, I may have just stumbled upon the solution. My advice: don’t go to the local cineplex this weekend, instead just wait. This movie is sure to be on Blu-Ray before the Christmas season is here. Rent it on Netflix, download The Jungle Book original score and press mute on your remote control. It’ll make for a beautiful movie-going experience. Maybe you’ll even see that “1-800″ number, be moved to give it a call, and donate a couple bucks just for good measure. Regardless, I bet, you’ll still temporarily wish for a baby chimpanzee before the final credits roll.


Three out of five stars. Chimpanzee is rated G, directed by Alistar Fothergill and narrated by Tim Allen. 


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