Disney's 2012 movie offering for Earth Day is a gorgeous and technically dazzling look inside the world of chimpanzees — their use of tools, their nurturing instincts, their means of organization during fights and hunts for smaller monkeys, which they sometimes eat.
But Chimpanzee also is a throwback, a documentary that follows a baby chimp named Oscar as he struggles to learn the ways of his tribe and to survive in the dense rain forests of Africa's Ivory Coast. It's moving and entertaining as well as informative.
And as Tim Allen narrates and the chimps themselves provide moments of low comedy and high pathos, you might be reminded of the studio's popular True Life Adventures nature docs of the last century — films that humanized, sometimes to the point of cloying, their wild and untamed subjects.
In a vast, fog-shrouded jungle, we meet baby Oscar, his mom, Isha, and the chimp in charge of this tribe — Freddy, an alpha male tasked with keeping order and keeping other chimp packs from invading their turf, eating their figs and taking over the grove of nut trees that keeps Oscar's extended family fed, even in the jungle's lean months. They've learned to use rocks and sticks to open the nuts. Despite this advantage, the vast "army" of chimps led by one-eyed "Scar" (of course) threatens to chase them to the hinterlands, where the food promises to be more scarce.
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If you see allegories in human behavior among our primate cousins — battles over resources, clannishness — take that as purely intentional, too.
Allen's narration makes this kid-friendly film even more so, although the script does tend toward underscoring that which is made obvious by the images on the screen. "Yum yum" at meal time, and the like. And since these chimpanzees use tools, you know "Tool Time" Allen will join them in a healthy grunt or two.
But that doesn't spoil a lovely film, all extreme close-ups of chimps grooming, eating (with their mouths open), working out which rocks or sticks are good for cracking nuts and which aren't. Watching the chimps hunt tiny monkeys (nothing remotely graphic is shown) for food (nothing remotely graphic is shown) is a lesson in role-playing, teamwork and elementary tactics. We see them build their intricate "sleeping platforms" at night, wash their food and pass down knowledge from parents to children. The detail is amazing.
Nature itself makes a glorious set as we're treated to stunning shots of fluorescent mushrooms and dazzling, little-known waterfalls. After the omnibus documentary Earth and the broader African Cats (by the same filmmakers), Disney might have hit on just the right mix of information and entertainment with Chimpanzee, the best Disneynature film yet.