Breathtaking images of animals in the African wilderness are packaged for a G-rating and an audience of children in Chimpanzee, a documentary from the Disneynature label.
Filmmaker Alastair Fothergill (who codirected 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.
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's box office 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 rainforest 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 get usable images - often devoting an entire day to acquiring just a few seconds of footage.
And it's 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 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.
Chimpanzee *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. Distributed by Disneynature.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: G (monkeys eaten, but not overly graphic)
Playing at: area theaters