Chimpanzee a good nature film spoiled by monkey business

Complaining about Disney attaching human characteristics to animals seems pointless and also way late — “Uncle Walt” was anthropomorphizing Mickey Mouse back in 1928 with Steamboat Willie.


2 stars (out of 4)

Rated: G

Complaining about Disney attaching human characteristics to animals seems pointless and also way late — “Uncle Walt” was anthropomorphizing Mickey Mouse back in 1928 with Steamboat Willie.

Still, there are limits. And if there’s any justice, Chimpanzee will be the film that finally prompts people to go bananas and cry, “Enough!”

In seeking to make frothy entertainment out of the growing pains of an orphaned baby chimp named Oscar, with an insipid story and almost mocking narration by Tim Allen, it runs counter to its professed scientific intentions.

This fourth release from the Disneynature factory, co-directed by BBC Planet Earth aces Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, promises images of chimpanzees in the wild “for the first time ever caught on film.”

And there are some swoon-worthy scenes, deep inside the Ivory Coast rainforest of West Africa, as cameras capture not only the complicated social networks of chimps but also the fragile web of life all around them. The time-lapse photography alone is outstanding.

Unfortunately, the film stops impressing the moment Allen opens his mouth, and he rarely shuts it. He narrates the fragmented saga of chimp newborn Oscar as if he’s shouting out one-liners on his old Home Improvement TV show, never missing a chance to make something serious look silly.

We are told “Scar and his thugs,” a rival group, are a major threat to Oscar and his community, but this is based on roughly edited fight footage in which it’s impossible to tell one animal from another.

Of course, the cuteness factor is amped up whenever Oscar is on the screen, whether it’s playing with other chimps, learning the ropes of food gathering or going for rides on his adoptive father, an alpha male called Freddy. Lead-footed sound cues and bizarre song choices — including Caro Emerald’s recent pop jazz hit That Man — help turn Chimpanzee into a cheesefest.

Small fry in the audience will be enchanted, and so might their parents. But you have to wonder why primate conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall has attached her name to such a flyweight film, which gives us little indication why chimps are considered an endangered species.

Presumably “Scar and his thugs” are endangered, too — do they not qualify for concern?

As bad as Allen is, it would be wrong to blame him entirely. He’s just the mouthpiece, and Disneynature has shown over its four documentary features that it’s more interested in making live-action cartoons out of valuable nature footage than in crafting anything more meaningful.

Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.

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