Disneynature and directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield should be commended for turning an environment like the African Rainforest, which seems to do its best to keep humans out, into an inviting world that will capture the wonder of children and adults alike. If nothing else, Chimpanzee is beautiful to look at. As an added bonus, there’s a heartwarming story about life and death and the surprising bonds formed out of strife. Excellently narrated by Tim Allen, Chimpanzeeis a wonderful film to share with the whole family.
In the African Rainforest there is life. Isha is a chimpanzee who has recently given birth to her son Oscar, who is just like any young child – feisty and adorable. Together, they’re part of a larger chimpanzee family led by Freddy, an old, wise and powerful alpha male. Chiimpanzee follows this group as they go about their lives, surviving in the dense vegetation, feeding on the sustenance the jungle affords. There is another group of chimpanzees, however, and they are led by the grizzled and ferocious Scar. Having exhausted the food in his part of the jungle, Scar and his men set their sights on Freddy’s turf. A violent confrontation is inevitable, but who will survive and can the survivors go on when integral members go missing?
Chimpanzee will completely transport viewers into the Rainforest in the way that Disneyland rides seemingly take park goers into another time and place for a few minutes. Cinematographers Martyn Colbeck and Bill Wallauer deserve an award for presenting the lush jungle in such a vivacious and otherworldly way. Consider the opening moments, hovering safely over the dense jungle only to slowly descend below the tree line until all the senses are engulfed by the forest. It’s a dramatic experience and perfectly sets the mood for this animal kingdom.
Rather than simply film the Rainforest in a clinical, straightforward manner, the filmmakers take some creative license to break up the presentation. Good use of time lapse showcases how the jungle is a living thing unto itself as vines crawl along the ground, rocks and trees, while decay sweeps over everything. Slow motion shots will hypnotize viewers as raindrops fall and explode onto the environment in mesmerizing ways. If Chimpanzee were just these beautiful nature shots, then it would still be completely watchable.
Fortunately, there’s also an engaging story. Oscar is fun to watch as he learns the ways of the jungle. Children will laugh and adults will chuckle at watching him learn a process, like breaking nuts, but not be able to do it quite right. There’s something very human about how the chimpanzees interact with each other that will immediately make audiences sympathize, whether it’s rambunctious children ruining midday naps or a mother making sure her child is fed before herself. In short, these chimpanzees are easy to watch and always interesting.
Nature films that attempt to craft a story that humans can relate to seem to face a common problem: animals don’t behave like humans. Therefore, it’s impossible to discern motivation and emotions beyond the very basic. Thankfully, there’s Tim Allen to point out who the good guys and bad guys are. So while Oscar and his family have traditional human names, the opposing chimpanzees are a group of nameless thugs with a leader who has a scary name. In reality, the chimpanzees probably just want to survive and sometimes that leads to conflict. No side is either good or bad, yet Chimpanzee forces distinction on the groups to keep things interesting. This leads to another issue, however, when Freddy’s chimpanzees, who are ostensibly the good guys, hunt cute monkeys and then devour them. Not only will this probably lead to some confusion for young children, but it’s easy to imagine another nature film called Monkey, featuring Freddy and his group as oppressors.
Despite its shorter runtime, Chimpanzee feels surprisingly long in parts. Perhaps it’s the repetition of their actions – they start off interesting, but wear thin quickly – or the manufactured drama. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s going on when there’s a lot of action and all the animals look the same. It’s during these moments that audiences will want the film to speed up.
Ultimately, Chimpanzee will satisfy the nature enthusiasts, animal lovers and those just curious about the world they live in. It isn’t without its flaws, but the work as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. Chimpanzee is beautiful, touching, fun and most of all, well done.