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Dustin Putman

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Chimpanzee  (2012)
2 Stars
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.
Narrator: Tim Allen.
2012 – 78 minutes
Rated: Rated G (no objectionable material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 3, 2012.
Producing a series of eco-friendly documentaries targeting children is valiant in conception, but it's been all downhill for Disneynature since its lovely inaugural release, 2009's gentle and touching "Earth." Since then, the notion has been to talk down to audiences by cutesying the films' subject matter up, giving not only names, but thoughts, to the animals being captured on camera in their natural habitats. Instead of observing the untainted beauty of, say, a pride of lions in Kenya (as in 2011's "African Cats"), its makers felt the need to bombard the dailies with artificially conceived conflict and an obnoxious ongoing narration that turned the picture into pure fiction. Just in time for this year's Earth Day comes "Chimpanzee," and if it's a marginal step up from the cheap exploitation of "African Cats," it still falls into many of the same egregious traps. It's particularly telling when the footage playing during the end credits is better and more insightful than anything in the film proper.

Oscar is a baby chimp living in the rainforests of Uganda with his mother Isha until a leopard on the prowl leads to her tragic disappearance. Stripped of his guardian, Oscar finds a friend—and a makeshift parent—in "large and in charge" 20-year-old Freddy. Meanwhile, following the chimps' movement to find fruit on the far side of the forest kingdom's ridge, a rival pride led by formidable leader Scar suddenly want to teach them a territorial lesson. That is really all there is to the story that has been unevenly rammed into "Chimpanzee." Having filmed over a nearly three-year period, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have been behind several of the past feature documentaries bred from the Disneynature label (Fothergill previously directed 2011's "African Cats" while the two of them helmed 2009's "Earth"), and there is no denying the level of dedication, patience, courage and perseverance that must go into the making of one of these movies. After all, the exotic land they are shooting upon has been rarely, if ever, trammeled on by human feet. What is all the more depressing, then, is how the invaluable footage must be mucked up in post-production in order to seemingly delight the half-there 3-year-olds in the audience.

When the wild animals—most predominately, the amazingly human-like title species—are left to their own devices and the camera merely observes their natural behavior with each other, every stroke of the hair, crack of the nut, or generous ride on the back suggests the propensity for empathy and problem-solving that they, like people, can surely attest to. These moments are few and far between, however, as narrator Tim Allen (2010's "Toy Story 3") prattles on endlessly, barely taking time out for a breath as he reads a shoehorned scripted narrative, names the chimps (that the bad guy is called Scar, as in 1994's "The Lion King," is beyond shameless), and gives them artificial thoughts. Furthermore, scenes are cut together in a way that feels dishonest and disjointed, all the easier to formulate a pat, easily digestible premise. When all else fails, directors Fothergill and Linfield throw in a wholly out-of-place musical montage—twice—to the jazzy warblings of Caro Emerald's "That Man." What a song with the central lyrics, "I wanna love that man," has to do with primates in the rainforest is anyone's guess.

Emotionally distant and oddly uninvolving, "Chimpanzee" is too frothy to have much to say until the ending, a post-script reading that the chimpanzee population is only one-fourths the size it used to be several decades ago. Finally, the viewer receives some insight during the closing credits scroll, played alongside a making-of/raw footage combo that fascinatingly shows the work that went on behind-the-scenes and the pure, touching interplay between Oscar and Freddy, sans annoying voiceover. This, at long last, is what we've been waiting for, and it's over in a matter of minutes. "Chimpanzee" is earnest enough that it's difficult to hate, but it's also such a squandering of resources that one can't help but sort of resent it.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman