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Review: 'Chimpanzee' is a kid-friendly swing through nature

Disney's 'Chimpanzee' follows a band of chimps, including the irresistible Oscar, in a documentary that feels like a feature. It's crafted for the kids.

April 20, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • "Chimpanzee" star Oscar gathers nuts that he will crack open using the rock he is carrying. The documentary is the latest film from DisneyTrue Life Adventure.
"Chimpanzee" star Oscar gathers nuts that he will crack open… (Mark Linfield, Disney )

"Chimpanzee,"the latest Disney nature film, might as well be called "Simply Irresistible," because thanks to the mischievous monkeyshines of a baby chimp named Oscar, it comes pretty close.

This is the most storified yet of Disney's True Life Adventure family films, which began with the release of "Earth" in 2009, and was followed by "Oceans" in 2010 and last year's"African Cats."Classified as documentary, "Chimpanzee" feels more feature filmy as it follows a band of about 30 chimps, with tiny Oscar the breakout star. His mother, Isha, unintentionally falls into the tragic heroine role, with the band's Alpha leader, Freddy, stepping up as a sentimental hero who must fend off a villain named Scar (the leader of a rival band of chimps).

Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, who also collaborated on "Earth," and cinematographer Martyn Colbeck ("Nature," "Planet Earth") spent much of 2008 in the very wet and wild Tai Forest of Africa's Ivory Coast to capture the exquisite footage of animals in their native environment. The jungle becomes a character in its own right, with the time-lapse photography of spider webs being woven and flowers blooming adding another layer to the sheer beauty of the film.

Apes have long held a fascination for humans because of their very humanness — the expressive eyes, those opposable thumbs, the playful personalities, their innate curiosity, the easy affection — and the chimps are natural hams. The filmmakers lean heavily on that appeal, letting the camera linger as young chimps tumble in play, swing through trees and shriek with delight while their elders look on in amusement. The close-ups are remarkable for the emotions captured, never more so than when Isha feeds, grooms and cuddles her little one.

As in the rest of the animal kingdom, life for the chimps is about the fundamentals of survival — food, shelter, safety and progeny — and the basics of berry gathering, nut pounding, tree climbing and social networking shape the story. Oscar is a rambunctious toddler as the film opens. Much of his time is spent with mom learning the finer points of the food chain. Breaking open the nuts turns out to be a highly developed skill that starts with choosing the right rock and pounding with precision. It's also tailor-made for comedy with Oscar's hit-and-miss attempts delivering some of the films most entertaining moments, though his mastery of trying ants on a stick comes close.

Tim Allen's understated narration fills in both scientific specifics and the story line of a growing chimp, all simplified so that even little ones can understand. His straightforward tone keeps the melodrama that would be easy to fall into mostly at bay. Meanwhile, the chimps' habits serve to keep the kids entertained — the well-chewed leaves they love to pack into their pouchy lower lip and show off were a big crowd pleaser, judging by the giggles in the audience.

As luck, and the whims of the wild, would have it, a bad turn of events for Oscar gives the film the emotional arc it needs. The conflict comes as food becomes scarce and Scar's rival band starts making raids. Soon Oscar is motherless, though the film doesn't spend time on the details of Isha's fate. As an orphan, Oscar's life is in serious jeopardy, but then a hero comes along — and the music soars. In fact, the harsher realities of the wild are softened throughout, nothing as graphic as the zebra kill in "African Cats," which drew some biting criticism.

The film is really crafted for the kids, and on that front it excels. For adults, "Chimpanzee" has a way of feeling both too rich and too thin, like an expensive glossy coffee table book meant to be visually savored rather than studied too closely. But the shortfalls are mostly offset by Oscar, with those soulful eyes and mischievous smile, scampering across the screen, stealing the show — simply irresistible.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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