For several years now, DisneyNature has been celebrating Earth Day with a stunning film about one aspect of the marvelous big blue marble on which humanity makes its home. This year is no exception. CHIMPANZEE is a rousing evocation of how precarious, how glorious, and how infinitely fascinating nature is in general, and in particular, the how those three apply to the eponymous life form who stars in this year‘s adventure.
The filmmakers original intent was to document the a chimp’s life from birth through his first critical years. Fate intervened and allowed them to instead document how the baby chimp, dubbed Oscar, coped with being orphaned at an early age. Using the sort of stunning photography that evokes awws and awe from the audience, and a narrative that is accessible enough for kids and equally engaging for adults to fill in the backstory of the chimpanzee‘s place in the wild, Oscar’s life becomes a precis on the complex social order of wild chimpanzees, including the brutal wars that break out among rival groups over that most basic of necessity: food. It’s one of those skirmishes that indirectly leads to the death of Oscar’s mother (how classically Disney). Too young to have learned to fend for himself, too weak to do so even if he had, Oscar’s life is in the balance unless he can find someone in his group to adopt him, and survival in the wild is anything but an exercise in altruism. Against all odds, and anything that had been observed in the wild before, Oscar was adopted by Freddy, the alpha male of the group, a grizzled and ill-tempered loner who took a shine to the boy.
It gives nothing away to remind the reader that this is a Disney film, nor that the point of the film is about more than just this one irresistible primate. The group dynamics of Oscar’s extended family of 35 needs little in the way of anthropomorphizing beyond the requisite assigning of names and personalities to the chimps. Less speculative, and handled with a surprising but never pedantic thoroughness are the specifics of life in the wild. Chimps are seen making nests in trees above the nighttime dangers lurking in the darkness; learning to use tools, in particular showing that some are better than others at it; and in a striking sequence, demonstrating the chimpanzee ability to plan and execute sophisticated maneuvers when it comes to hunting monkeys for food, edited, it should be noted, with great sensitivity for those of a squeamish nature. Nurture is as important as nature as presented by means of that ci-mentioned narrative, spoken in a folksy, but never cornpone, manner by Tim Allen, who can deliver a gentle barb about rookie mistakes with a generous dollop of humor added to the chiding. Little is left out when it comes to explaining what is shown, though the bioluminescence of fungi, shown in montage but never explained, is a marked and irksome omission.
A well-written narrative is nothing without the astonishing visuals. It’s not just an abundance of “how did they get that?” shots, but also the way they are pulled together into a truly compelling story that is touching, exhilarating, and enlightening in unexpected ways. In addition, there’s the way the forest is presented as a living thing in its own right, no sequence better for that than the stop-motion showing vines curling around trees and anything else that they encounter with a vigor that is disconcerting.
When the words “The End” appear on screen, the film isn’t quite done. This is when the filmmakers step out from behind the cameras. Clips of them facing insects that get the best of them, forest floors that are none too certain, and other assorted pitfalls and obstacles flash across the screen with the summation by one of them that puts it all into perspective. “This is not the easiest job in the world, but it is the best one”. It’s only right that the brave, impetuous, and perhaps slightly crazy people who captures the footage for CHIMPANZEE are allowed to take a well deserved bow, both for surviving the endeavor and for sharing it with the world.