Chimpanzee: Yet Another Disney Orphan to Melt Hearts

Too cute? Maybe. Disneynature's latest documentary is visually astonishing but can't transcend the trappings of relatable wildlife story.

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Walt Disney

Oscar and Freddy. Description: Oscar rests in his adopted father's lap.

The amount of information a small child can absorb and retain about wildlife is fearsomely impressive. At least once a day I fail pop quizzes on dinosaurs and/or cheetahs and raptors, administered by a boy with ample access to nature movies. This may explain why I was so attuned to what the gorgeously photographed Disneynature film Chimpanzee wasn’t telling me or, more importantly, much younger information-hungry animal lovers. It has plenty of charm and is filled with astonishingly intimate footage worth seeing on the big screen but is sketchy on details and dumbed down by cutsy, anthropomorphizing narration.

“Isha couldn’t be happier with her new baby boy,” narrator Tim Allen burbles as he introduces the principal characters from a pack of Ivory Coast–dwelling chimps. Really? At three months, the baby boy Oscar is insanely cute, and Isha appears very dutiful in picking ticks and other bugs off him, but I’ll reserve judgment on her actual state of mind. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, but it is possible that the duties of motherhood are just that. She is definitely hungry though, along with the rest of the tribe, so the chimps, led by Freddy, who Allen describes as “large and in charge,” roam around the Tai Forest National Park, grazing from fig trees, nut groves and gobbling up the occasional monkey. While off looking for “forbidden” fruit in another part of the rainforest, they encounter another tribe of chimps led by Scar (no relation to the Scar in The Lion King). It’s a feud and Scar wants ownership of Freddy’s favorite nut grove.

(Read: Time’s Top 10 Animal Stories from 2011)

The narrative arc here involves the well-foreshadowed orphaning of Oscar (this is a Disney production after all) via the combined efforts of Scar’s gang and a leopard (prepare for the very young to crawl in your lap) and his subsequent adoption by Freddy. Apparently a male chimp taking care of a baby is an unusual, even shocking event. If only Allen’s narration, so intent on building up the rivalry between Scar and Freddy into a veritable chimp version of The Hunger Games, had room for some factual information about why the adoption is so surprising. The film was directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the filmmakers behind two of Disneynature’s hugely successful films, African Cats and Earth, and was made with the blessing of the Jane Goodall Institute, so presumably someone knows. (Reason to go sooner, rather than later: Disney will donate 20 cents to the Jane Goodall Institute from every ticket sold in Chimpanzee’s first week.)

(Watch: Time’s 10 Questions with Jane Goodall)

But watching Oscar learn to forage and feed, from the way he puzzles over opening a nut to his encounters with a bee hive and a swarm of fire ants is completely captivating. A glimpse of his adorable refusal to settle down to sleep, just like a human toddler except the bed is made high in the treetops, ought to turn a Creationist. The cameras are so close you assume they have to have been unmanned and placed with extraordinary luck. Not so; over the credits, we’re treated to footage of the camera crews dashing about the jungle, just feet away from the actual animals. The filmmakers followed the chimps all over the rainforest for more than a year, lugging heavy cameras and equipment while being bitten, stung and scared by the creatures of the jungle. The resulting sense of proximity in Chimpanzee is nothing short of breathtaking. In the dreamworld, there is a director’s cut somewhere that skips Allen’s chatter and gives us their story instead.

(Read: Time’s Top 10 Not-So-Extinct Animals)