Chimpanzee (2012)

Here’s a thing: I love non-human primates, particularly the great apes. I could stare at photos of chimps, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas all day long (and usually do, on Sundays). So even though I knew Disney’s Chimpanzee was going to be treacly bullshit, I still had to have it. Seventy-eight minutes of delightful chimps? Duh.

And even with the suspicion that the story of chimpanzees would be dumbed down for children, I was still quite dismayed when I saw Tim Allen was the narrator. One of my infamously heavy sighs reverberated through the apartment, I’m sure. Still, I couldn’t wait to pop the sucker in and gander at our cousins for a while.

"Oscar." You can't blame anyone for wanting to make a film revolving around that beautiful face.

“Oscar.” You can’t blame anyone for wanting to make a film revolving around that beautiful face.

Though this purports to be something like a documentary, that’s not what it is. Of course that’s not what it is, do you think you could get a kid to sit down and watch a real documentary? With different narration this certainly could pass for a documentary, but the way the story of our wee hero “Oscar” is told, it’s more like a fable. We start off in the idyllic rainforest where Oscar lives happily with his mother, “Isha.” Just like a human baby, Allen tells us Oscar is the apple of his momma’s eye. But, of course, there is trouble in paradise: a group of “thugs” led by “Scar” (still trying to figure out the significance of the villainous chimpanzee’s name differing by only one letter than our baby hero’s) are gunning for Oscar’s land. They intrude and Isha doesn’t survive. How will piteous, bright-eyed Oscar make it now?

I just can’t stress enough how troubling the lopsided nature of this story is. Obviously, Oscar and his mother and the tight-knit community of his group are favored; who could look at this young chimp’s eyes and not feel a sympathetic connection? These are the heroes of the story, the ones with a “family.” It’s the rival group of chimps, nary a female in sight; the “thugs” referred to as an “army” led by a chimpanzee labeled “Scar” that cause nothing but trouble. Rather than rounding out the true story of chimpanzees, and of nature in general, by showing that one animal can do both good and bad things, Chimpanzee instead would lead your children to believe some are inherently ‘good’ and others ‘bad.’ Of course, the loners and bachelors are the ones you have to worry about; they’ll steal the fruit of all your family’s labor!

"Scar" and his "thugs."

“Scar” and his “thugs.”

The heavy-handed, black-and-white storytelling is pretty insufferable, and if you choose to watch this with the sound on, it will most certainly ruin the movie for you. At least the writers have graciously spared the audience multiple references to Home Improvement; we only hear Tim Allen’s famously obnoxious grunt once. I guess they thought it’d be cute having Mr. Tool Time himself narrate a story about animals who are famous for their tool use?

Whatever issues I have with Chimpanzee, I have to stress how absolutely gorgeous the film is. I mean, it is some seriously beautiful shit! Got to hand it to the cameras here; I would happily watch this on mute over and over and over and over again. Furthermore, being a lover of chimpanzees and pretty seriously concerned for their welfare (both in nature and in captivity) I have to applaud Disney for bringing them to the forefront. If they have to lie a little bit to the kids to get them interested in chimpanzees and their plight, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing?



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