Released on Earth Day, Disneynature’s fourth feature film (following Earth, Oceans, and African Cats) to hit theaters in recent years captures three years of documentary footage of chimpanzees who live nestled within the Tai Forest of the Ivory Coast region in West Africa, where the filmmakers hung out for an impressively long and stealthy haul while employing clandestine methods to capture these elusive animals. As far as nature porn goes (and I do apologize for employing that cliché, but that’s really what we’re talking about here), this is a gorgeous, beautifully rendered work of photography with a fittingly heart-tugging story. Naturally, these animals are anthropomorphized all to hell, which is not only something that we expect from Hollywood in general but seems rather fitting for our fellow primates.
Seriously, kids will love this shit. Grown-ups, however, will hate it for one main reason, which the ubiquitous voice of Tim Allen, who narrates most of the movie — at first alerting us to a world “of drama, sadness and joy” but then quickly devolving into an ingratiating, self-aggrandizing nuisance. You may be wondering … does Tim actually perform the “Tool Time” grunt? Of course he does, and why wouldn’t he? That’s probably why the producers hired him in the first place, and what a bloody mistake that turns out to be.
Here’s the story, which is pretty bare bones so I’ll cut my description short as well. A young chimpanzee named Oscar loses his mother in a territorial battle involving two competing gangs of chimps (the “bad” side is led by the nefarious Scar, a name which sounds awfully familiar to anyone who’s ever watched The Lion King). The newly orphaned chimp, who is only three-years old and must nurse for a few more years, is immediately tasked with finding a new parental figure or starving. Luckily (and vague spoiler alert for anyone who didn’t see this coming), he finds the love, nourishment, and everything else that he needs from another ape. Oddly enough, Oscar finds a new “mother” in the Alpha male of his preexisting chimp clan. Yes, sensitive males do exist in other breeds of primates beyond the hipster human variety. Let that be a lesson to us all.
While the storyline of Chimpanzee does feel somewhat contrived, that’s also a necessary danger with any type of documentary whether the subject is human or animal. In addition, the made-up dialogue between the chimps can be slightly insufferable at times, yet the movie somehow secured the endorsement of Jane Goodall, so it can’t be all that ridiculous. Even though it really is … because of Tim Allen. If the filmmakers would’ve spared us the precious exposition — or even better, re-hired the African Cats narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) instead of Allen, this experience could’ve been much more enjoyable for the adults who will inevitably sit through this adventure. Further, the movie would’ve worked its intended magic if the filmmakers had just let the animals do their thing while letting the cameras roll and then editing in the competent manner as displayed. But no. We have to listen to Ape Man noises from Tim Allen, who was probably scratching his balls in the recording booth. Perish the thought.
Of course, I’m making far too big a deal out of what is essentially a cute little movie that’s intended only for the youngest children who are able to handle sitting in a movie theater. The scenes that would be traumatic and incredibly violent are played offscreen and sanitized so that the little ones won’t realize what’s going on (cannibalism?) except the most important aspect to the story — Oscar losing his mom. This is ultimately one chimp’s story of survival, and the little bastard (which is probably the wrong word choice) is truly endearing. Chimpanzee is one hell of a good-looking film, but with that said, it will play much better at home on DVD with the “mute” button fully engaged.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.