The latest cinematic look at our closest relative, "Chimpanzee" may accomplish more off screen than on.
Directors Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield and their dedicated crew spent the better part of three years in Africa, filming our fellow primates in astounding intimacy in the heart of the rainforest.
The resulting images are the latest proof of the steady ascent of nature documentaries, even those from Disney, whose Disneynature arm extends its list of beautiful offerings with this story of an orphaned chimpanzee. The two directors and others connected to this film previously contributed to "Earth," "African Cats" and other successes from the company.
In following footsteps trod by scientific researchers and other film crews, Fothergill and Linfield were careful to select their lead. The marvelously expressive baby chimp, whom they perhaps hopefully named Oscar, would light up any movie. Under difficult circumstances, the directors and crew worked tirelessly to catch him interacting with his family troupe and their fantastic environment.
The result are brilliant images of chimpanzees displaying a range of behaviors, some surprising, but all seemingly unaffected by the presence of cameras or sound booms. At times, the view rises from the jungle floor, up trees and vines, occasionally finding the top of the forest canopy for sweeping vistas of surpassing beauty.
Midway through the filming, Oscar is orphaned. When he is spurned by other chimps, it seems to spell the end of the project, and of him. And then something incredibly touching happens, beyond human expectations. It all seems worthy of an Oscar.
And then they added a script. It's one leftover from "The Lion King," right down to a villain named Scar. He's the alpha male of another troupe of chimpanzees, or as the script refers to them, "Scar and his thugs." They don't have behaviors, they only have ominous music.
At least the filmmakers telegraph their intentions by hiring that avatar for low intelligence, Tim Allen, to narrate in his most warmed-over "Home Improvement" vocal schtick. But since the directors and their producers are responsible for the silly, tedious, uninformative words that come out of Allen's mouth, their Oscar eligibility is hereby revoked.
Sound creates the problems for "Chimpanzee." That includes the Ragtime clarinets skittering along in "Monkey see, money do" style and the soft-rock balladry geared to inspire only the most easily inspired. But the real damage comes from what can only be called Disneyfication. Presented with an affecting story to tell, and providing fabulous images in its service, the filmmakers then go for every dumbed-down description, corny joke and sanitizing gloss-over that Allen can mouth.
Many critiques of nature documentaries fault supposed "anthropomorphism," but often what is happening is the reverse. Especially when looking at our mammalian cousins, humans like to pretend that we are the only ones who can really experience fear or joy, curiosity or pain. In that sense, "Chimpanzee" completes a trilogy of films released over the past year that illuminate human self-delusion.
"Project Nim" chronicled the sad life of its title character, a chimpanzee torn from his mother as an infant in order to settle an obscure "scientifc" controversy of the past century. In an ill-conceived and worse-administered experiment, Columbia behavioral psychologist Hebert Terrace placed Nim in human households in an effort to get him to learn and use American Sign Language. It was the 20th Century equivalent of debating how many angels can dance on a pinhead theorist.
Terrace lost interest when Nim used language for his own ends, rather than for the ends the professor wanted him to adopt. He insisted on behaving like a chimpanzee instead of flourishing in a cinder-block classroom. Abandoned by his human companions, Nim spent years in medical "research" and sub-zoo-like facilities. In contrast, Terrace went on talk shows, where his ideas doubtless inspired the monocled "manpanzee" in the current comedy "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."
The most recent "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" imagined a holocaust coming not from human politics via nuclear armageddon, but from the growing consciousness of these primate victims of medical experimentation. There may seem to be an inexhaustible supply of them for our little games, but one factual point that "Chimpanzee" does make is that the common chimpanzee is now uncommon in the wild, where its numbers have plunged to 200,000 from 1 million in the past 20 years.
Côte d'Ivoire's Taï National Park, where much of "Chimpanzee" was filmed, represents the last extensive stand of primary rainforest in west Africa. The region's previous human inhabitants lived lightly on the land. But wars in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia have sent refugees streaming into the area. Explosive and heedless human population growth has ravaged the chimpanzees' traditional habitat.
One thing Disney is doing through "Chimpanzee" is donating 20 cents from every ticket sold through May 3 to the Jane Goodall Institute to help protect chimpanzees and their habitats. Information is available here.
In four decades of research, Goodall has essentially established our understanding of chimpanzees. Some of the findings have been uncomfortable. Her own early belief in their gentle, peaceful natures have given way to a more realistic understanding of creatures that more closely resemble our own mix of empathy and cruelty, altruism and violence.
One of the more interesting events that a film crew caught involved an adult female chimp and her grown daughter, who seemed on bad terms with the rest of their troupe because of erratic behavior. After another chimp, one with a younger daughter, gave birth again, the two unstable chimps began assaulting her, attempting to grab the infant.
Her young daughter ran over to the research crew, chattering wildly, pointing at the attack, jumping up and down. She ran back toward her mother, then stopped when she realized the humans were not following her. She again rushed to them, gesturing and crying, while they commented about how interesting that was. Eventually, the two unstable chimps succeeded in taking and killing the infant. The sad little chimp turned from the humans and trudged back to comfort her mother.
Of course, no non-suicidal human should ever confront an adult chimpanzee without weapons. On the other hand, at least one wild chimpanzee knows the effectiveness of trying to communicate with humans.