Friday, April 20, 2012

Chimpanzee: Just sorta hangs there

Chimpanzee (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages 
By Derrick Bang

Oscar is a little bitty thing: adorable but otherwise not such a much.

The same can be said of his film.

Little Oscar is cute as a bug, as this flimsy documentary constantly
reminds us. More instructive detail about chimpanzee behavior would
have been appreciated; this film's script turns superficiality into an
Chimpanzee, the fourth entry in Disney’s revived nature film series, is a throwback to the studio’s original True-Life Adventure documentaries, most particularly with respect to a contrived storyline that exists solely for the benefit of Tim Allen’s whimsical narration.

The original True-Life Adventures began with 1948’s Seal Island, which brought Disney an Academy Award for live-action short subject. It was followed by classics such as 1950’s Beaver Valley, 1953’s Bear Country and 1959’s Mysteries of the Deep, among others; after their original theatrical runs, they all became required viewing in baby-boomer classrooms for the next several decades.

When the series concluded with 1960’s Islands of the Sea, every kid in America regarded ongoing narrator Winston Hibler as a favorite unseen uncle; his friendly, instantly memorable voice was both a comfort and one of the series’ strongest assets.

Those short subjects — and the occasional feature, such as 1953’s The Living Desert and 1954’s The Vanishing Prairie — were highlighted by stunning cinematography and a strong sense of being right there, in the midst of whatever drama Hibler extracted from the onscreen events.

Granted the benefit of hindsight and maturity, it’s easy to see that most of the “drama” was assembled via clever editing, the footage sequenced in order to fit a narrative designed for a blend of family-friendly peril and droll “comedy bits” punctuated by orchestral rim shots in the soundtrack. In some cases, the animal behavior was exaggerated — or even fabricated — in order to fit the storyline.

I’m not sure that plays today, in the wake of pure nature documentaries such as 2005’s March of the Penguins and a host of IMAX films. At a time of stronger conservationist instincts and a rising awareness of endangered species, we demand more integrity and honesty from our nature documentaries. Chimpanzee feels frivolous and larkish: a project assembled solely to spend some time with an admittedly endearing baby chimp who couldn’t be cuter if he tried.

And, yes, Martyn Colbeck’s cinematography is impressive, as is the sense of intimacy granted by long-range lenses that place us alongside this film’s simian stars. We can only marvel at the patience displayed by these filmmakers, as they spent hours, days and possibly even weeks in order to get just the right shot. Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield certainly understand the territory, having collaborated on the lavish BBC documentaries Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, the latter having just made its way to our shores as these words are typed.

Indeed, watching Frozen Planet further emphasizes the compelling authenticity and informative detail that are absent from Chimpanzee ... which, rather vexingly, tells us very little about chimpanzees. This film is no more than a children’s picture book brought to life. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, although it sure doesn’t set the bar very high.

The story, set in the lush Taï Forest — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — within Africa’s Ivory Coast, focuses on a chimpanzee tribe led by an alpha male dubbed Freddy. One of the clan’s females, Isha, has just given birth to little Oscar: an initially helpless bundle of gangly limbs and owl-wide eyes. The film’s first chapter concentrates on Oscar’s early development, as his mother provides food and the patient instruction that one day will allow the young chimp to fend for himself.

Although Jane Goodall’s heroic research — memorably depicted in the 2002 IMAX film Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees — has done much to educate us about chimp behavior, we marvel anew at the intelligence, creativity and tool-making on display here. Hard-shelled nuts are cracked open with rocks; tasty grubs and termites are scooped out of tight spaces with thin sticks. Oscar watches and learns.

Subtleties often elude him, such as the distinction between rocks and thick chunks of tree branch, when pounding those nuts. The task demands something stronger than wood, which shatters; needless to say, Allen’s narration draws plenty of chuckles during these sequences ... particularly at the expense of fingers and toes that sometimes get whacked in the process.

The territory occupied by Freddy’s clan centers around this prized nut grove: a source of considerable food, and desired by a rival chimpanzee group waiting for the right moment to invade. These “evil” chimps are led by a grimly foreboding alpha male dubbed Scar, whose features never seem to convey the benevolence or good cheer exhibited by Freddy, Isha and the rest of their group.

(Small point: Would it have been so difficult to give this enemy chimp warlord a different name? Scar was the villain in 1994’s The Lion King, and this repeated use of that name — in an identical context — is rather distracting.)

The threat having been established, the tension mounts as Freddy’s group maintains its routine: grooming, eating, sleeping, cracking nuts. Scar’s hovering menace notwithstanding, this film’s most surprising, eyebrow-raising jolt comes with the reminder that chimps — like human beings — are omnivorous and therefore enjoy the occasional fleshy alternative to all those nuts and berries.

The delicacy of choice? Fresh monkey meat.

The fascinating task of hunting the upper tree-dwelling monkeys unfolds with the military precision of lions quietly circling and then bringing down a gazelle. As this is a family-friendly movie, we’re spared any images of actual slaughter, but it’s easy to connect the dots as the chimps enjoy lip-smacking bits of monkey in the subsequent scene.

This sequence is far more compelling than anything having to do with the “malevolent” Scar and his equally fearsome buddies; that’s the difference between authentic behavior and “menace” amplified by a storyline grafted onto typical territorial squabbling.

As it happens, though, things do go awry for poor Oscar, left motherless after a skirmish. Ideally, an orphaned chimp would be adopted by another clan female, but that doesn’t work out here; the possible candidates have youngsters of their own. His weight dropping and his skin now badly irritated by the ticks and insects that normally would be removed via grooming, Oscar seems doomed ... and that’s when the miracle occurs.

No specifics from me, although this surprise has been spoiled for months by the film’s advance trailer. But it would be nice to know — in greater detail — precisely why this is such a miracle. As mentioned above, this film is woefully inadequate with respect to discussing any behavior more complex than smashing nuts ... and, quite frankly, the nut-smashing wears thin after awhile.

At a modest 78 minutes, Chimpanzee shouldn’t be long enough to wear out its welcome ... and yet it does. The execution is bland and rather uninspiring, despite Allen’s efforts to jolly things up; at times, the pacing is just this side of boring. Reading about the making of this film — in production notes that, alas, aren’t available to the general public — is far more interesting than watching it.

As just one example, “cover footage” was obtained in Gabon and the Ngogo Forest in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, just like Hollywood features that routinely play fast and loose with geographical accuracy. And I’d love to know more about the involvement of primatologist Christophe Boesch, who has studied the Taï Forest chimps for more than 30 years, and served as this film’s principal scientific consultant. Why couldn’t he have written the narrative script?

Ultimately, Chimpanzee is no more than a sweet but superficial bedtime story. Ironically, this material would have fared better as a 32-minute, two-reeler short akin to Disney’s original True-Life efforts ... or perhaps in a one-hour television timeslot, less commercials. Good intentions aside, it simply isn’t feature-length material.

1 comment:

  1. At a light and lean 77 minutes, Chimpanzee is perfect family fare as kids will love watching the antics of the young chimps, and just before they figure out its educational, the credits are rolling. However, it can be a bit too disturbing for them at some points. I also thought that Tim Allen's narration helped the film out a lot with its tone as well. Good review Derrick.