Chimpanzee news!!!: Dan Lybarger on the DisneyNature film

April 20, 2012

Grade: 83
Cast: Tim Allen (Narrator) The chimpanzees: Oscar, Freddy, Isha, Scar, Grandpa
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Rated: G
Running time: 78 minutes

By Dan Lybarger for the Democrat-Gazette

It’s hard to resist a pair of big brown eyes, even if they belong to a chimp.

The peepers in question belong to a growing chimpanzee named Oscar, who’s the star of the new Disneynature documentary Chimpanzee. While comedian Tim Allen tries his best to keep this look at primates struggling to survive in the Ivory Coast from becoming a dry lecture, he quickly gets upstaged by little Oscar.

That’s the way it should be.

Chimpanzee was assembled over four years, and all the time and care is obvious. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have somehow managed to have cameras in the right place during Oscar’s tumultuous life.

If you’ve ever wanted the carefree existence that animals have, you probably haven’t seen much of a chimp’s routine. In Ivory Coast, they have to scrounge for nourishment by eating bugs out of trees or fighting off a rival group of chimps led by the fearsome alpha male Scar. If fighting other chimps weren’t tough enough, their jungle is loaded with hungry leopards, and the ants chimps love to eat bite back.

Oscar has a lot to learn in order to stay alive, and the task becomes even more formidable when his mother disappears after a battle with Scar’s tribe. He and Bambi have a lot in common. Such basic skills as nutcracking and fruit foraging don’t come naturally to him.

Fortunately, his tribe’s alpha male is Freddy, and Freddy is as compassionate as he is cunning and tough. Able to defeat Scar’s more populous, thuggish brood, Freddy could teach George Washington a few things about combat tactics. Nonetheless, the scenes where he adopts Oscar are undeniably touching. It’s too bad that Chimpanzee is timed for Earth Day instead of Father’s Day because this is great for father and son bonding (you know, the human kind).

Allen has a tricky challenge with narrating the film. He has to engage viewers without coming off as the biology teacher who put us to sleep in class. Unfortunately, the script he recites sticks him with wisecracks that sound like they were rejected from Home Improvement (lots of quips on tools).

Allen is curiously most effective during the dramatic sequences. At times, Chimpanzee might have been more engaging if the only noises came from the chimps or the jungle. Do we need narration every time Oscar hugs his mom, Isha? His contented face tells the whole story.

There’s not an ugly or dull shot in all of Chimpanzee. During the closing credits, the filmmakers reveal how they got close to the chimps. It wasn’t easy, comfortable or safe. It’s odd that it takes all of this filmmaking technology to truly appreciate how complex and awe inspiring nature is.

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