The opening moments of Disneynature’s “Chimpanzee” are genuinely jaw dropping – an emerald green jungle, more lush and 3D than the otherworldly forests of Pandora, fans out across the screen, and we’re introduced to a young male chimpanzee named Oscar, as intricate and bewildering as any CGI creation. And then…the narration starts. In a misguided bit of synergistic back-scratching, Buzz Lightyear himself, Tim Allen, provides the running commentary, which is so awful that it does the unthinkable – it actually unravels much of the natural beauty presented onscreen. It’s enough that the entire time you’re thinking, “Well, maybe there’ll be a silent version on the DVD.” It’s that ridiculously terrible.
It’s a shame, too, because so much of “Chimpanzee” is amazing and compelling and very, very wonderful. It was co-directed by Mark Lindfield (a zoologist-turned-filmmaker who worked on BBC’s groundbreaking “Planet Earth”) and Alastair Fothergill (a contemporary of Lindfield’s who directed last year’s Disneynature doc “African Cats”), and its structure was assisted by a number of talented people from Disney Animation (it was produced by Don Hahn, who oversaw much of what was produced during Disney’s Second Renaissance). These are talented storytellers, after all, who seized upon a truly amazing story in the jungle, but an over-explanation of the events kills almost all of the inherent drama and suspense of the story (in as much as there is one).
For much of the movie it plays out as a kind of chronicle of the young life of a chimpanzee – how they try and use tools to crack nuts and get at insects, the relationship the young chimpanzee has with his mother, the internal dynamics of the group of chimpanzees, the dangers that surround the chimps, etc. – and for a while this is perfectly fascinating. “Chimpanzee” is a descendant in a long line of nature documentaries (the genre was actually created by Walt Disney himself, back in 1948), and so it has a kind of shopworn, old-fashioned charm. The situations seem somewhat heightened although the jungle is a genuinely crazy place and the animals are of course named and anthropomorphized to more closely resemble the animated Disney characters we’re so used to seeing burst into song before some treacherous life trial, and the pace and tone of the piece reminds you of something you might see in a World Showcase pavilion at EPCOT Center.
And the documentarians couldn’t have asked for a more amazing set of circumstances – when a rival “gang” (Allen refers to them at least once as a “pack of thugs”) of chimps attacks our main apes, Oscar’s mother is killed. It’s pretty tragic, watching this cute little chimp cry out for its mother, searching around the jungle for her, losing weight because he hasn’t been fed or taught how to fend for himself, while the other chimps in the society openly ostracize him. What’s truly incredible, though, is that the alpha male from the pack decides to look after little Oscar, and the two form an astounding relationship – the most impressive, strongest chimp in the pack making a decision to protect and nurture the smallest, weakest chimp. It’s enough to make your heart expand outwardly in your chest… if Tim Allen wasn’t gabbing away.
“African Cats,” the superior Disneynature film from last year, also made characters out of the cats and simplified their struggles in easy-to-follow narrative terms, but that film also knew when to step back and just appreciate the animals. (Samuel L. Jackson’s narration was both matter-of-fact and quasi-mystical; a much better fit.) It had a more leisurely pace, too, and it never felt too cluttered with imposed exposition.
“Chimpanzee,” on the other hand, is filled with moments of narration so bad that you’ll probably sigh, you might shake your head in disbelief, or maybe just give up all together. For example, in a sequence where we get to watch the apes using tools to crack open some kind of hard berry, Tim Allen launches into his Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor routine (immortalized in “Home Improvement,” a sitcom that went off the air way back in 1999), saying, “Now we’re talking!” and then letting out a series of his trademark grunts. We’re watching animals just a few shades of genetic grey away from our own species, using complex tools to figure out how to obtain food, and it’s reduced to the dated punch-line from an old sitcom? Really? Isn’t what we’re watching enough?
And the movie never wiggles free of the oppressive narration. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus on Oscar as a young chimp, so we don’t get to see him grow up and tear some poor Connecticut woman’s face off, and as a glimpse into the life of a remarkable animal in the jungle, it’s a huge success. This kind of relationship seems like one of the more unlikely scenarios, especially in an environment where everything has pinchers or stingers or venom, and it touches you on a level that goes beyond special boundaries. The photography is lush and enveloping and the score by Nicholas Hooper appropriately sets the mood (less appropriate are some swinging pop songs that pop up randomly, again suggesting that this is some kind of tougher version of “The Jungle Book”). But no matter how much you enjoy this movie – and it’s not lacking in pleasures – you’ll still have to hear Tim Allen mutter through the whole thing. He’s trying to be informative but it just sounds like he’s on the verge of burping or telling some joke about how women don’t know what life’s about because they can’t grow beards. It’s enough to make you wish someone would drop him off in the jungle and leave him there. [B-]