Drama and cuteness beat out hard science, but Disney's "Chimpanzee" is good at showing kids some amazing wild animals.
With a wealth of informative TV wildlife programming already in the marketplace, Disneynature faces a Darwinian dilemma. How can the studio's zoology unit create films that will put paying audiences in theaters? In "Chimpanzee," the strategy is clear: Make dramas, not documentaries. With its emphasis on entertainment rather than edification, the film occupies a warm-and-fuzzy middle ground between "The Jungle Book" and Animal Planet.
The new nature film follows a baby chimp named Oscar and his clan, observing them as they forage, use tools, play games, and care for one another. Just like humans, our primate relatives grapple with issues of dominance, family organization, reciprocation, competition and altruism. They even make war, fending off a rival pack of chimps that wants their nut grove. We face most of the same problems, and sometimes we come up with the same solutions.
Filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield get intimately close to their subjects. In shots of chimps learning to crack hard-shelled nuts with rocks, you can almost feel the sting when they whack a toe instead. When Oscar's life takes a sad turn midway through the film, the story becomes a real-life "Bambi of the Apes."
Tim Allen's folksy narration fulfills its mission, which is not to deliver Jane Goodall-quality anthropology but to show kids that wild animals are amazing. So are the jungle plants. Some of this visually gorgeous film's most indelible images show puffballs shooting out spores in slow motion, phosphorescent fungi glowing at midnight, and delicate mushrooms growing in time-lapse hyperspeed. The film is not designed to answer every question but to inspire youthful curiosity.
The youth-friendly plotline involves Oscar's primal need to find his own place in the hierarchy, while the group battles villainous antagonist Scar and his pack. Purists may object to covering animal tales with cheesy sentimentality, but there's nothing wrong with capturing your viewers' hearts en route to their heads. At one touching turn, I heard a small voice in the row behind me stoutly declare, "I am not crying." Job well done.