Oh to be a primate, swinging through the trees without a care in the world except where to find the next meal. That is, unless you’re one of the chimpanzees at the center of the new Disneynature documentary Chimpanzee, who try to protect their territory from a neighboring, rival group. At times genuinely terrifying, the film traces the life of a three-year old chimp named Oscar as he matures and learns to live apart from his mother.
Although it is a documentary, Chimpanzee wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a sweeping narrative with heroes, villains, love and loss, and technically dazzling “special effects.” Set in the jungle of Uganda, the film follows Oscar’s journey with his mother and his group as he learns how to crack nuts properly, watches his elders hunt for meat, and ventures off into the treetops on his own for the first time. His group is the victim of several fierce attacks from a rival tribe of chimpanzees who, according to narrator Tim Allen, wish to take control of the coveted nut-grove trees.
For a movie that has been marketed to families, Chimpanzee contains some startlingly disturbing scenes of chimp on chimp violence and action. “You may be shocked to know what the chimpanzees eat when they need meat,” Allen intones in a grave tone of voice, but nothing could be more shocking than discovering the fact that they hunt tinier species of monkeys. A prolonged scene shows Oscar’s tribe planning an attack on monkeys. A chimp is even pictured gnawing on his prey’s flesh, a grisly moment that’s questionable inclusion might make audiences squeamish.
If nothing else, Chimpanzee is an important film in terms of the video it captures of the rainforest, timeless images that will forever preserve the memory of a lush and captivating landscape. It’s hard not to audibly gasp during moments of slow-motion lightning strikes, sweeping shots of the treetops at midday, and raindrops slowly plopping on plants that puff clouds of spores at the slightest disturbance. It’s equally as hard to deduce how the filmmakers could have gotten so close to the action without disturbing the forest’s inhabitants. Night vision glimpses of leopards that stalk in the pitch darkness are stunning displays of ingenious filmmaking.
It’s cute for a G-rated movie and elicits some serious sympathy for the cuddly Oscar, but Allen’s narration ultimately hinders any believability the story may have. He lends voices to the chimpanzees that are nothing more than a human’s attempt to understand what these creatures might be thinking. The audience is given no sense of perspective when Allen switches from a narrative voice to first-person chimp voice, offering tidbits like “Hey, this is hard!” and “I love you mom” to moments that never needed such explanation in the first place. Allen lends brevity to situations but his narration often comes off as overly assuming at crucial moments.
For one thing, the “rival group” of chimpanzees is consistently filmed in a darker light with angry looks in their eyes. Their leader, named Scar (ala The Lion King) by the documentary’s directors, is never given any screen time where he might be swinging around looking cute like baby Oscar does. Who is to say that these chimpanzees are any less adorable than Oscar’s clan? It’s a filmmaker’s choice that audiences must be mindful of-while a conflict between the two groups certainly exists, the movie lacks any evidence to prove who is in the wrong.
Perhaps I’m making too much out of a movie that was clearly intended for younger audiences only looking for a whimsical tale of cute chimpanzees lazing about the jungle without a care in the world. It’s important to think about the movie’s narrative choices, but it’s just too darn hard to dig any deeper than Oscar’s adorable baby monkey face.