Friday, April 20, 2012

“Chimpanzee” directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

Movie Review by Jack Silbert
I dig monkeys. I love monkeys so much that, even though I know I’m really talking about chimpanzees most of the time, I still call them monkeys. So I was pumped to see Chimpanzee, the latest release from Disneynature. Each Earth Day since 2009, this Disney film division has put out a new nature documentary: Earth; Oceans; African Cats; and now Chimpanzee. This was the first of those films I’d seen, and I hadn’t done any advance research on the movie, so I really went into it much like your kids might. Though maybe a little bit taller.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the movie: through the hanging clouds, into the lush African greenery, down to the jungle floor, where we meet frolicking chimps. These filmmakers clearly know what they’re doing. Next we’re hearing a jaunty Louis Prima/Jungle Book-type number from a Christina Aguilera soundalike (Dutch singer Caro Emerald). And I quickly began to wonder: Is this going to be an actual documentary or goofy entertainment? The answer is: a little bit of both.

I suggest explaining to your kids beforehand that they’ll be watching a true story, because the movie itself doesn’t make it totally clear. The plot seems almost too Hollywood, with the “bad guy” gang of chimps primarily in black (often referred to as a “mob’ or “army”), and led by a chimp named Scar. Then there’s our hero, Oscar, who suffers the saddest Disney mommy disappearance since Bambi. But just when things couldn’t get bleaker, he’s adopted by the unlikeliest dad of all, an alpha-chimp named Freddy. What is this, an Adam Sandler movie?

And yet, it’s apparently true. (Or mostly true. In the credits I saw the names Dave Reynolds and Kirk Wise, who have worked on a variety of Disney animated films.) Definitely stay seated at the end for a mini-segment on the filmmaking crew discussing their experiences. It’s the closest you get here to in-depth nature documentary. We do learn an awful lot throughout: About chimp family structures, how they use tools, hunting, eating, grooming, sleeping, fighting, etc. But the script is so light that kids who are really into science and nature—especially older kids—may come away disappointed. The writers would rather give us a bad joke than a hard fact. It does not help one bit that the narrator is Tim Allen. Granted, he goes a full 40 minutes into the movie until lapsing into his trademark Home Improvement ape noises (during a tool segment, of course).

There is much cool stuff to look at, even if it’s not always explained: exploding mushrooms, a spider spinning a web, streams of army ants, strangely glowing plants, a very impressive storm, and more. During the storm, we learn that chimps hate getting wet. Yet, the other band of chimps uses this opportunity to advance on enemy territory. Do they have better umbrellas? Another contradiction: Does grooming establish chain of command or strengthen friendships? I’d guess both, but again, the film doesn’t spell it out. There is at least one sequence that might be a little upsetting for kids, though it is tastefully shot: the hunt, capture, and consumption of an (actual) monkey. Poor fella!

Though I certainly have some gripes, ultimately I do recommend this movie. It’s a rare and fascinating glimpse into the private world of chimpanzees, with stunning cinematography. Your kids will definitely know more about chimps after seeing the movie than before, and that’s a pretty good thing. As a bonus, for everyone who sees the movie in its opening week, Disneynature will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute to further their work protecting chimps. Let’s hope they continue to delight us long into the future. Even if some of us insist on calling them monkeys.

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