The new Disneynature documentary Chimpanzee follows an ape named Oscar. C'mon, Disney! We're not falling for that one...no awards are forthcoming. Still, this G-rated outing may prove a "gateway drug" of sorts to get young kids interested in nature and science-themed documentaries, and on that level, its stylistic crimes are probably excusable. Like most docs of its ilk, Chimpanzee allows information to take a back seat to manufactured drama, ruthlessly constructed to maximize short attention spans.
Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield took their cameras into the African jungle to capture impressive fly-on-the-tree footage of a baby chimp in his formative years. "Oscar" begins in the company of mother "Isha" but (spoiler alert) when a Disney-style parental tragedy separates the two, Oscar bonds with "alpha male" "Freddy" in what the film breathlessly brands "an astonishing turn of events." This gender-role breakthrough would seem to be as rare as the filmmakers claim, though it's hard to trust them when they're so desperately intent on convincing us theirs is a story "full of drama, sadness and joy."
Such claims sell short the inherent interest in how these animals live on a daily basis. Much of the footage does detail the chimps' use of stones to prepare food: as he learns the ropes, monkey-see-monkey-do-style, wee Oscar finds that every nut is a tough nut to crack. We also see the chimps snacking on fire ants and grooming, and there's a fascinating bit showing how a chimp can swiftly make a bed in a tree. To the filmmakers' credit, they also include a sequence in which the chimps hunt and eat monkeys, which—though discreet—may not exactly endear the chimps to kids.
Chimpanzee most eagerly seizes on the narrative potential of a rivalry between two groups of apes. Oscar's group protects a nut grove that ensures its survival, but a "rival army" sets its eyes on the nut grove, and "the enemy has a formidable leader—Scar!" The narration, read by Tim Allen, would love to turn Chimpanzee into The Lion King, and it's full of anthropomorphisms about "our boy Oscar." Before you can sing a chorus of "I Wan'na Be Like You," former Home Improvement star Allen is calling rocks "power tools (grunt, grunt, grunt)".
Sometimes the commentary is downright puzzling: following a climactic battle, Allen intones, "Teamwork has beaten brute force" (what movie is he watching?). Decide for yourself if the narration is a necessary concession for kids: it's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition that doesn't make but also doesn't quite break Chimpanzee.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Disney brings Chimpanzee to hi-def in a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack featuring a razor-sharp transfer. Black level and contrast are spot on, with rich hues and detailed textures contributing to a vivid sense of "you are there" dimensional depth. Sound comes in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; it's not as immersive as one might hope for a jungle-set documentary, but rather a front-heavy affair. Still, the overall A/V quality here is as good as this movie is likely to get on home video, which is quite good indeed.
The seven-part doc “On Location: The Making of Chimpanzee” (38:54, HD) wins best of set by demonstrating—at greater length than the end-credits glimpse can provide—what it took to capture the film's footage. The filmmakers and cinematographers share their thoughts, and we see them at work filming the chimps and dealing with the jungle elements.
"See Chimpanzee, Save Chimpanzees" (3:13, HD) explains how Disney and the film partnered with the Jane Goodall Institute, raising money for her efforts to save chimps; Goodall and the filmmakers give interview comments.
The music video "Rise" (4:18, HD), with the McClain Sisters also comes with its own making-of segment, "Behind the Scenes of 'Rise'" (1:17, HD); the McClain Sisters pop again in "Disney's Friends for Change" (0:47, HD), in which they endorse involvement in environmentalism. Lastly, "Disney's Conservation Legacy" (1:48, HD) reminds us that Disney cares about the planet.
With the one meaty extra, the HD presentation, and the added-value flexibility of the combo pack, this edition of Chimpanzee earns its "keep."
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