LOS ANGELES — Some privileged nature footage from the African rain forest is dishonored by deeply silly narration in "Chimpanzee," which follows a particular group of chimps in the Ivory Coast's isolated Tai Forest.
This fourth documentary from the Disneynature label shares with last year's "African Cats" the fault of talking down and sugarcoating to coddle the tyke audience, a shame given the rarity of the intimate portrait provided of chimp life in rarely visited remote regions.
With the sophistication and scientific information provided on TV nature docs steadily increasing, this sort of throwback aimed squarely at little kids feels very old school. The division's first release, in 2007, "Earth," pulled in an impressive $108 million worldwide and its follow-up, "Oceans," earned $82 million. "African Cats" dropped to $21 million, a figure perhaps more in the range of what this one will do.
Everyone loves chimps for the simple reason that to regard them is, but for a slight biological rearrangement, to look at ourselves. The close-together forward-looking eyes, warm child rearing, manipulation of tools, omnivore habits, communal spirit and general intelligence are undeniably relatable, even if humans generally see the animals only in the relative isolation of captivity.
Catching them on home turf in Africa is not easy, as they generally live in dense jungle, are not keen to be surrounded by a camera crew and can easily scamper off faster than they can be followed through the bush.
So high marks to Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, who also directed "Earth" together (Fothergill also codirected "African Cats") for finding a way to comprehensively cover a particular group of chimps in the Tai Forest for a period of time long enough for young chimp Oscar to grow and learn a few survival tricks. Points, too, for the exceptionally observant and graceful camerawork of Martyn Colbeck and Bill Wallauer (Warwick Sloss did additional shooting), which brings the viewer in close and looks beautiful in the bargain.
The storyline the filmmakers stitched together from incidents that took place during the shoot follows the survival and education of Oscar, definitely a cute little bugger, as he learns to fit in with an extended family of about 36 chimps led by grand old man Freddy. Oscar's mother Isha, who is meant to nurse him until he's about five, instructs her son in the finer points of selecting berries and nuts, the latter being highly coveted by a rival chimp tribe.
The film runs into trouble the moment it introduces the chief of the rival group as "Scar." From that point, repeated references to "Scar and his gang" or "his mob" suggest that there are such things as good and evil chimpanzee clans, with nasty predators like Scar's crew (tellingly never seen with young offspring or identifiable females) preying upon nice groups such as Freddy's, whose worst transgression is a raid into some high trees against some colobus monkeys, one of which ends up as a (virtually unseen) meal. At the Hollywood press screening, a number of moms with small kids made for the exits after this scene, so it's a good thing the filmmakers skipped the matter of chimpanzee cannibalism (a favorite Animal Planet topic).
After an attack by Scar and his "thugs" make an orphan of Oscar, the little guy looks like he'll soon be a goner too until Freddy takes him under his wing, a rarity for an alpha male. This is very nice and all, but by this time the uncredited narration, voiced in cornball fashion by Tim Allen, has made this turn of events seem like old-style Disney hokum whether it actually happened this way or not.
The score by Nicholas Hooper, who also did African Cats, moves easily between the jaunty and the dramatic. As before, this Disneynature feature will be released in conjunction with Earth Day. An unspecified fraction of every ticket sold during the first week will be donated to the Jane Goodal Institute through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund for the protection of chimpanzees, which, a climactic title informs, have seen their population in the wild decrease from one million in 1960 to a fifth of that number.
"Chimpanzee," a Disney release, is rated G. Running time: 78 minutes.