Disneynature has had much success with their Earth Day documentaries: 2009’s “Earth” was about our entire planet, primarily focusing on polar bears, whales and elephants and was narrated by James Earl Jones. 2010’s “Oceans”, narrated by Pierce Brosnan, took us under the sea. And last year’s “African Cats”, about lion and cheetah families, was narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Combined they’ve grossed more than $200 million worldwide. This year the studio is taking us back to Africa, this time to meet a young chimp named Oscar.
“Chimpanzee” is narrated by Tim Allen, who tells Oscar’s story of survival in the rainforest. We first meet Oscar as a baby – instantly cute and likeable. He’s curious and loves to literally “monkey around”. His mother Isha takes care of him and tries to protect him at all times. The leader of their group is Freddy – an older chimp who’s not a big fan of young upstarts, especially when he’s trying to sleep.
Freddy’s #1 duty is to protect his group from his enemy – Scar – and his gang of chimps who want to take over Freddy’s territory for food. During one confrontation between the two sides little Oscar is separated from his mother and this takes all of their lives in a surprising direction.
At only 78 minutes “Chimpanzee” goes by very quickly. At the end I immediately thought – “It’s over already?” The subject matter is interesting and the story is engaging, I just wish there was more to it, especially since much of the film is taken-up by many wide shots of the rain forest and close-ups using time-lapse photography.
When I interviewed co-director Alastair Fothergill (who also worked on “Earth” and “African Cats”), he told me that unlike Disneynature’s previous films, they wanted “Chimpanzee” to be more of a comedy. And it is, so Allen is a good choice for the narration. He has a distinct voice and adds his own personality to the storytelling. Some of Allen’s lines are a little corny but there are some humorous moments with Oscar interacting with the his mom and the other chimps, and you do learn a lot about chimps, including one amazing fact about what they eat that I guarantee will surprise you.
What’s most impressive about “Chimpanzee” is the footage. Fothergill and co-director Mark Linfield (“Earth”) deserve a lot of credit for capturing great, natural moments on film. And it wasn’t easy. The camera crews were restricted to standing 22 feet away from the chimps at all times and everyone had to wear masks so they wouldn’t spread human germs to the chimps. Some of the shots are amazing, especially knowing that all of the close-ups we see had to be taken from a distance. Like the other Disneynature documentaries, there is a “Making Of” short at the end, which could have been much longer.
At times the material runs a little dry. There are one too many scenes of Oscar and the others trying to break open nuts with rocks and sticks. And come on, you named the rival chimp leader Scar? The old, evil lion in “African Cats” was also Scar. It’s time the writers come-up with another name of a Disney cartoon villain for the enemies in these documentaries.
“Chimpanzee” is rated G. Unlike “African Cats”, there is no blood on the screen, but there is some action/violence during the attacks that may briefly scare younger ones, especially with the over-dramatic music during those scenes. Overall, it’s appropriate for kids 8 and up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Chimpanzee” gets a B.
At the screening I attended, there was no preview for next year’s Disneynature film. Fothergill told me there are a few projcets in the works, but he couldn’t give anything away, so we’ll have to wait and see what Disneynature has is store for it’s 2013 Earth Day film. Maybe we’ll finally get that a bird documentary I’ve been looking for.