When Walt Disney began making nature documentaries back in the early 1950s, one of the first criticisms leveled at him was that he was anthropomorphizing his animal subjects.
The reviewers raved about the images captured by camera crews who camped out for weeks in the hope of catching an eaglet emerging from its egg or a stampede of lemmings committing mass suicide in a leap into an icy Arctic sea.
But they strenuously objected to Disney’s tendency to ascribe to these wild creatures human motives and human emotions, as if animals acted out of choice rather than out of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.
Funny how things don’t change.
Chimpanzee, the latest of Disney’s new line of wildlife film, is sometimes so astoundingly beautiful that you wonder if it’s for real or if some of those images (lighting strikes, a fog-enshrouded rain forest) haven’t been sweetened with a big fat dollop of computer enhancement.
But Chimpanzee also smacks of contrivance and artifice. Let’s give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume that nothing has been staged, that each and every shot represents the members of an Ugandan chimpanzee troop behaving in their accustomed fashion.
The way those shots have been put together, though, feels awfully phony. It’s as if the directors (Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield) took hundreds of hours of random chimp footage and dreamed up a fantastic story so that it would all make sense.
Add truly cheesy voiceover narration by Tim Allen, and you have an entertainment that is both spectacular and infuriating.
Ostensibly this is the story of a baby chimp named Oscar. (Obviously Oscar’s simian momma didn’t name him. That’s the name he was given by the filmmakers. Because “Oscar” has more of an “awwwww” factor than “Chimpanzee Infant No. 4.”)
Oscar’s extended chimp clan is led by an old gray veteran named Freddy.
On the other side of the mountain, we’re told, is a rival troupe led by the aptly-named Scar. Occasionally the two groups wander into each other’s territory in search of food; this usually results in an ape armageddon.
Now there’s no reason to think of Freddie’s group as the good guys and Scar’s as the bad guys. In nature there are no good guys and bad guys.
But the movies need villains, and so Scar and his followers are depicted as the Nazis of the ape world.
Freddy leads a “group”; Scar leads a “gang.”
The activities of the two groups are interchangeable, so to make sure we can figure out what’s going on, the film always depicts Freddy’s bunch moving from left to right, while Scar’s storm troopers move from right to left. As far as I know the same chimps could have been cast as the members of both groups.
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After one such confrontation, we’re told, young Oscar was separated from his mother, Bambi-style, and orphaned. Ignored by other members of his group, he was slowly starving.
And then the old alpha male, Freddy, inexplicably adopted little Oscar — feeding him, protecting him, letting him ride on Freddy’s own broad back.
Apparently this really happened, for over the closing credits we get footage of the filmmakers talking about how amazed they were to witness this unprecedented show of mercy and benign paternalism.
Problem is, by the time this happens I was so dubious about the filmmakers’ methodology and breaches of documentary honesty that I didn’t care.
Okay, so there is nifty stuff here. Time-lapse photography of vines climbing and mushrooms sprouting is amazing. The filmmakers captured some pretty interesting footage of the chimpanzees stalking and killing smaller monkeys (yeah, they eat meat when they can get it).
And it’s just about impossible to watch these creatures without being riveted by their human-like movements and moods.
But, hey, they’re still animals. It would be nice if the documentarians could remember that.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.