Chimpanzees eat monkeys. That’s one of the big take-aways from “Chimpanzee,” the latest in the DisneyNature series of documentaries. We don’t get to see this happen in a way that would jeopardize the movie’s G rating, of course, but between description (by narrator Tim Allen) and implication, we get the general idea.
And while that’s certainly educational — it’s the first thing that’s going to come to my mind next time I need to distinguish between the two animals — the movie’s coyness about portraying that fact of life pinpoints the general problem with “Chimpanzee.” Nature is brutal and unfeeling, but DisneyNature wants to be warm and cuddly.
There are two movies going on here, and the less interesting one by far is the story that’s been crafted by writers and editors about a young chimp (known as Oscar) whose mother dies and who winds up being adopted by the tribe’s alpha male. If you’ve seen any Disney animated feature since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” you know the studio loves stories about protagonists with one or both parents missing or dead, so that part of the narrative certainly follows the company line.
Of course, if you’re a fan of old-school Disney True-Life Adventure tales like “Joker: The Amiable Ocelot,” then you’re used to this sort of sanitizing of the world’s rougher edges. But in a post–Animal Planet culture, all this anthropomorphism and shying away from the harsher realities of life in the rainforest feels a bit cloying.
The other movie unfolding within “Chimpanzee” involves some really stunning nature photography. The closing credits of the film show the hardships (everything from bees to humidity) that the cameramen had to endure to get these amazing shots, resulting in impressively intimate glimpses at the chimps mixed in with eye-popping vistas of the landscape that surrounds these animals.
The time-lapse photography of creeping vines making their way up trees, moss formations covering rocks, and spiders spinning intricate webs could be an entire movie unto themselves, and even the overhead helicopter shots inspire a true sense of awe. The extraordinary footage on display here goes way beyond anything you ever saw in science class.
And even with all the manipulation of their stories, the chimpanzees themselves emerge as fascinating characters. Their expressive faces and the power dynamics within the tribal structure remind us of their close kinship to human beings, and Allen's narration (by Don Hahn and directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield) points out the physical comedy possibilities of their attempts to break open recalcitrant nuts or to chew up pulpy fruit.
If you want to see them gnawing on monkey meat, however, you’ll need to find a more uncompromising and less family-friendly documentary.