ChimpanzeeThe phrase alpha male conjures pictures of manly men and beastly beasts doing masculine things in a masculine way. One does not expect an alpha male to nurture, to caretake, or to love. Disneynature’s stunning new feature Chimpanzee tells the story of the exception to that rule. The exhilarating family adventure transports its audience to Africa’s Ivory Coast, where cheeky young chimp Oscar is just gaining the confidence to explore his colourful rainforest home. Disney favourite Tim Allen narrates the tale with enthusiasm and panache – easily sweeping youngsters into the captivating story and gripping their attention throughout.

Chimpanzee’s director/producers, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield were already highly accomplished wildlife documentarians. Both had enjoyed box office success with their previous Disneynature feature, Earth, and the team they assembled for Chimpanzee have equally distinguished records in the field. Still, the demands placed on the talented crew must have been tremendous. From the gravity-defying tracking shots that swoop up through the forest canopy, to the dramatic and atmospheric images of storm-rent skies – their tolerance for heights and humidity is evident in every striking frame. Principal photographer Bill Wallauer spent more than fifteen years with Jane Goodall’s Institute following the wild chimpanzees of Gombe National Park before taking his wealth of experience behind the lens. His instinctual understanding of the way chimps react and interact helped keep the crew in step with their subjects and grants us the privilege of an entrée into their closed circle.

Isha, Oscar’s mother, keeps a watchful eye over his early breaks for freedom. She knows how hazardous their verdant home can be. Close by, a rival group gather and conspire. The nut grove that Oscar and his kin rely upon for regular feeds holds rich pickings for hungry chimps in a forest stripped bare of its resources. For the time being though the work of the day is to crack those nuts on makeshift anvils with the tools nature has supplied. Group elder Freddy – the alpha – tolerates the inefficiency of the smallest members but only to a point. His position demands that he keep all those below him safe, fed and groomed, there is scarce time for game-playing in Freddy’s strict routine. We are introduced to the gang when spirits are high and there is opportunity to laugh along with Oscar’s antics before things take a more dramatic turn. The chimps’ ingenuity is remarkable and little Oscar’s charm undeniable – it takes no time at all to fall under his spell.

Chimpanzee is an impressive film. The relationship its crew serendipitously uncovered is a compelling one and the images onscreen are absolutely, undeniably, magical. However, it is important to make the distinction between nature documentary and True Life Adventure. With the sound turned off Chimpanzee could qualify as documentary, with Tim Allen cranked up to full, exuberant, force it is most certainly the latter. It bewitches its target audience with a simplified story of good guys and bad guys, of loss and of love. It relies on happy songs, whacky antics and tragic orchestration to signpost viewers towards each emotional goal. This is ideal for wee cinemagoers but it will grate on the nerves of more cynical adults.

Oscar’s future is thrown into jeopardy when he and Isha are suddenly separated. Ignored by the other females, too preoccupied with their own dependents, the tiny chimp begins to fade away without the ministrations of his mum.  Even the aforementioned cynical among us must surely feel a shimmer of emotion at such despair. Then, just as chins begin to wobble in earnest, an unlikely new guardian appears…

Chimpanzee is a truly special film. The level of intimacy that Fothergill, Linfield and the team have achieved, and the appeal of these mesmerising creatures combine to enchant audiences of all ages. The stand-out moments come from the stop motion photography of the flora and fauna which warp and weft the forest floor, and from a sequence capturing the ingenious way chimpanzees bed down for the night. We even see a hunting sequence included that less faithful storytellers may have been tempted to leave on the cutting room floor. It isn’t a brutal scene but its inclusion demonstrates a crucial sense of pragmatism.

I am among those group elders upon whom Allen’s narration does grate and felt more than a little relieved when it came to an end. Yet, paradoxically, I cannot wait to see the film again – though next time I will have my daughter by my side, and I know she will fall head over heels for the magic of Chimpanzee.


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