BREATHTAKING IMAGES of animals in the African wilderness are packaged for a G-rating and an audience of children in "Chimpanzee," the fourth documentary from the Disneynature label.
Filmmaker Alastair Fothergill (who co-directed Disneynature's "African Cats") spent three years in the jungles of the Ivory Coast capturing 700 hours of rare, beautiful footage detailing the complex, dramatic and at times quite moving lives of a chimpanzee clan.
The job of narrating the material has been given to Tim Allen (was Morgan Freeman unavailable?), who imbues "Chimpanzee" with all of the grace and dignity of an episode of "Home Improvement," right down to his signature man-ape noises.
Of course, a little levity to puncture the self-serious atmosphere common to nature documentaries isn't a bad thing. But "Chimpanzee" goes a bit too far in shaping the material for kiddies, applying a cartoonish, good-versus-evil story arc to the movie's account of rival chimpanzee social groups competing for limited food resources.
The leader of an encroaching band of chimps, for instance, is given the name "Scar," and we're gold that he leads a "mob" of "thugs." One suspects that these would not be the words chosen by naturalist and chimp champion Jane Goodall, whose organization will get an (unspecified) portion of the opening week proceeds.
These are, after all, just chimps being chimps — as we see in "Chimpanzee," their fascinating lives need no embellishment from Allen, or from Disney writers, whose contributions are often at odds with the camera's passionate interest in rain forest life, even something as small as a raindrop striking the dry husk of a plant, releasing its spores into the air.
"Chimpanzee" is a laudable feat of technical prowess and determination — the crew worked tirelessly to get close to the chimpanzees, to find enough light on the dark floor of the forest to enable usable images — often devoting an entire day to acquire just a few seconds of footage.
Worth it, when you see the animals in their almost-human daily routine — grooming, socializing, using simple tools to eat food and organized hunting strategies to capture and to kill it. If you're planning on taking small children, you should know that the chimps kill and eat monkeys.
The circle of life, to borrow a Disney phrase. Harsh realities yield the movie's most powerful scenes. The star of "Chimpanzee" is a baby male named Oscar, and events conspire to make him as vulnerable as he is adorable. We'll leave the details to "Chimpanzee," but it's safe to say the movie ends happily, and if a child can handle "Bambi," or "Finding Nemo," he can handle this. n