Oscar is a baby chimpanzee, living a blissful life in the jungles of Uganda. His mom dotes on him. He romps with other baby chimps during upbeat musical sequences.
But in the distance the evil Scar and his hoard of chimp raiders threaten Oscar’s idyllic life.
If it sounds like a Disney movie, it is.
The latest documentary from Disneynature, Chimpanzee, makes a monkey out of the term documentary. This is nature without death. This is nature without cruelty. This is nature that doesn’t exist outside of Disney.
The fundamental problem with Chimpanzee is that it’s not a documentary. It’s a kids’ movie. Instead of trusting that the story of an orphaned chimp adopted by an alpha male would be touching and inspiring, the producers over-simplify by adding villains and humor.
The biggest weakness in all the Disneynature films is the need for a villain. It’s ridiculous to teach children that there are evil chimps hunting the good chimps. Worse, the film makes sure the evil chimps are scarred and ugly, since only good animals can be cute. The narrative is a fairy tale.
Why not lay out the conflict as neutral? Can’t children understand that sometimes animals fight? Does Scar really need Darth Vader music? I was starting to pity this poor simian, who, at the end of the day, just wanted a share of the nuts and figs being hogged by Oscar’s crew.
Narration by Tim Allen in full Tim-the-Tool-Man-Taylor-mode doesn’t help. He grunts and growls, and sometimes seems at a loss for words, riffing on the same joke for minutes. He tells us at least six times that chimps don’t chew with their mouths closed.
Still, I might be looking at this movie from the wrong perspective. In my screening, dozens of children were laughing and talking to the screen. And that’s the point of these G-rated Disneynature flicks: to entertain kids while teaching them the importance of the natural world.
In that way, these storybook documentaries succeed. They give little viewers a clear hero and a clear villain while captivating them with beautiful cinematography and a subtle message about preserving the environment.
Keep your family seated during the credits and you’ll get a treat: Footage of the cameramen battling bugs and jungle roots might have made a more interesting documentary for the adults in the audience.
It is, however, a bit of a shame that directors Alastair Fothergill (African Cats) and Mark Linfield (Earth) couldn’t find a more appealing script to accompany their gorgeous cinematography. There is little excuse for this, since Disney and its sister company Pixar are adept at writing for both kids and the adults who buy the tickets.
In the end, Chimpanzee is a well-meaning documentary that will captivate kids and be tolerated by adults. Is that enough to justify a ticket? It depends on whether your little one is ready for the blood and guts of the grittier and far more realistic Discovery Channel.