The downfall of many a nature documentary—and apparently the working method of the recent series of films launched under the Disneynature imprint—is the homo-sapien-ization of its animal subjects. While a certain amount of anthropomorphism is to be expected from these films (after all, animals sometimes do behave in ways not so dissimilar from their human counterparts), this approach too often leads to a misunderstanding about the ways that wild animals function in their natural environments. For all the resemblance, these beasts of the wild are most decidedly not humans.
With its reliance on anthropomorphism, the template of the popular nature documentary seems to be priceless location footage coupled with questionable narration. Disneynature’s latest, Chimpanzee, is no exception (though their earlier Oceans may be), and the offense is compounded by the stomach-churning cuteness of some of narrator Tim Allen’s turns of phrase, nearly all having to do with the fact that chimps are just like us, only goofier.
All of which is a shame, since Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s film is filled with some rather astonishing sequences that unfold with incredible vividness and accessibility, whether it’s observing the apes learning to crack open nuts with rocks, filming their strategically complex treetop ambush on prey, or watching them engage in a violent showdown with a rival “gang” (in the film’s questionable terminology) of chimps over a nut grove.
The film’s central plotline involves a baby chimp named Oscar who’s left for dead after his mother perishes in combat before he’s adopted by the group’s alpha male and amply provided for. This narrative is the one that seems most shaped to appeal to anthropomorphizing sentiment, but it’s also clear that the way chimp familial organization operates sufficiently resembles that of humans so that the viewer can be fairly confident in the biological accuracy of what he or she is being shown—even if Allen once again can’t help but cheese it up. In the story of young Oscar you have Chimpanzee in a nutshell, astonishing footage of apes in their natural environment made perfectly accessible and then nearly undone by a narration track that plays to the audience’s basest desires for gag-inducing cuteness.