Disney fans know well that the Mouse House has a rich history of producing high-quality nature documentaries, and in Chimpanzee, Emmy-winning Planet Earth directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield not only give us the unique opportunity to experience life among primates in Africa, but they manage to capture something completely unexpected and genuinely amazing in the process.
The chimpanzee is an exceptionally intelligent species of anthropoid ape, and by spending over three years in the tropical jungles of Uganda and the Ivory Coast, the filmmakers offer viewers a unique opportunity to better understand their distinct role in our global ecosystem. The story in Chimpanzee centers on Oscar, a young simian born into a large family of 35 who is eager to learn the ways of life in the jungle. As Oscar's mother Isha teaches her newborn how to find food and avoid dangerous predators, the leader of their family, Freddy, vigilantly defends their territory from his ambitious rival Scar. Scar and his clan covet the nut grove at the center of Freddy's domain, and it's only a matter of time before they attempt to take the precious resource by force. When tragedy strikes and Isha perishes, Oscar struggles to survive without a parent to feed and protect him. But just as it seems that all hope is lost for Oscar, something miraculous happens -- Freddy adopts the orphaned youngster and provides the support he so desperately needs to survive. But it may come at a devastating price, because somewhere out in the trees, Scar has noticed that Freddy has ceased defending the perimeters of his territory, providing the perfect opportunity for him and his clan to take the desirable nut grove by force.
Opening with a magnificent aerial shot of a fog-shrouded forest that seems to stretch into infinity, Chimpanzee gently guides us down beneath the dense canopy of trees to introduce us to Oscar and his family. With Tim Allen's narration casually alternating between educational observations, imagined inner dialogue, and amusing color commentary, we come to understand the hierarchy of Oscar's family and the crucial role that parents play in raising their young. Dazzling time-lapse photography offers a vivid glimpse of Mother Nature in action as the chimpanzees frolic, feast, and lovingly groom one another, and composer Nicholas Hooper (best known for his work on the Harry Potter series) sets the tone with an expressive score that's playful when appropriate, and gently foreboding when danger appears imminent. Meanwhile, potentially traumatic events such as the chimps hunting for small monkeys to eat, the fight for land, and Oscar losing his mother are all handled with a measure of restraint and visual poetry that negates the need for graphic imagery, while still conveying the fact that nature can be unforgiving. The only major fault of Chimpanzee is the vilification of Scar; from the low and tight camera angles used to assert the ape leader's barbarity to his nefarious pseudonym and the ominous inflection summoned by Allen every time he utters it, each serves as a contrived attempt to manufacture an antagonist. After all, it's the law of the jungle that is truly to blame for the hardships endured by Oscar and his family, since Scar and his brood are just trying to survive like any other creature.
While Chimpanzee is truly stunning on a technical level, it's the story that the filmmakers could never have seen coming that makes the movie something truly special in the annals of wildlife documentaries. When a baby chimp loses a mother, the child typically soon follows due to the sad fact that the other mothers in the family are already overburdened caring for their own young. For another mother to take in an orphaned youngster is rare, but for the alpha male of the family to accept such responsibility is virtually unheard of -- much less documented in such astonishing detail. To actually witness such a transcendent act of altruism in the animal kingdom is deeply moving, proving that compassion is by no means an exclusively human attribute, which makes Chimpanzee a must-see for not only little Curious George fans, but nature lovers of all ages as well.