For the past three years, Disneynature has released a new nature documentary on Earth Day (or pretty close to it), including Earth (2009), Oceans (2010), and African Cats (2011). This year, their lens lands on the African rainforest and an impossibly adorable chimpanzee named Oscar.
Oscar lives with his mom, Isha, in a gorgeous setting—swinging from a playground of trees above a carpet of lush vegetation and glowing mushrooms that light the night. But his community spends their days on an endless, life-or-death hunt for food—digging bugs out of logs with sticks, cracking nuts open with heavy rocks, and staging stealth missions across the jungle into rival chimp territory to acquire the sweet fruit of a new tree. And occasionally hunting monkeys (which chimps apparently eat!).
It's fascinating to watch the dynamics of the mother-son and community, led by wizened group leader Freddy, to see these animals fashion and use tools, and to observe the order and wonder of it all. It's especially meaningful for those who know the One who put it all in motion. It's perhaps most fun to watch all this through the uber-cute eyes of Oscar.
Tragically, the harsh realities of the rainforest leave Oscar orphaned (this is not a spoiler—it's made clear in the trailer—but what is it with Disney and tragic orphan stories), and he must renegotiate his role in his community. In fact, his life depends on an adult in the group—in this case, Freddy—taking him in, a process more complicated and tenuous than it sounds. This process and its outcome are compelling and give this documentary an interesting story arc you simply don't find in most nature films.
As expected, the footage is gorgeous. Shot under the direction of Alastair Fothergill (Earth, African Cats, and BBC's Blue Planet and Planet Earth series) and Mark Linfield (Earth, Planet Earth, Frozen Planet), Chimpanzee is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, even when the creepy crawlies make us squirm.
A bit less effective is narrator Tim Allen, who explains the chimp dynamics (great) and sometimes offers their imagined dialogue (not so great). For the most part, his words are light and playful and keep the film kid-oriented, perhaps at times a bit too much so.
It's good that the film is only 78 minutes long. It's paced just shy of being slow, and young viewers should stay engaged throughout, especially during the fight scenes. Though Chimpanzee is rated G, parents of young kids should read our Family Corner below to know what you might have to navigate or explain after the film.
Those who really fall for Oscar and his crew will be pleased to know that Disneynature has partnered with the Jane Goodall Institute for their "See Chimpanzee, Save Chimpanzees" program; during opening weekend, Disneynature donates money from each ticket sold to protect chimps and their habitats.
Make sure to stick around for the credits, to see outtakes of the brave cameramen who gave us this remarkable footage. Personally, I would have liked to see a bit more of this angle—how close these guys were able to get to the chimps and the interplay of humans and animals. Oh well, there's always next Earth Day.