Producers of nature films aimed at a family audience have long had a motto: Early to bed, early to rise, dumb down your story and anthropomorphize! (They also have a handshake, but if I spill much more about their secret society they'll stop inviting me to the annual fancy dress ball.)
However, the creators of 'Chimpanzee,' which may very well be the most breathtaking nature doc since 'Winged Migration,' have something rather unique on their hands.
The directors of 'Chimpanzee' have sculpted a plot-heavy narrative arc from their time observing a band of wild apes, but no matter how much one may suspect authorial string-pulling, or wonder who granted narrator Tim Allen total omniscience such that he knows what chimpanzees are thinking, the fact remains that the footage we see is real. And when you cut it the right way and add music, it doesn't have “shades” of a Disney film – it becomes a Disney film.
Meet little Oscar. Aw, he's so cute! He's learning to climb! Learning to groom! Learning (or trying to learn) how to smash open a nut with a log. There's his loving mom, Isha, and the mayor of the group, the distant, maybe even a little scary alpha male named Freddy. Plus all of Oscar's playmates (silly Rufus!), no stranger to musical monkey business montages.
But Oscar's home, much like The Shire, is in peril. Freddy may seem so stern because it falls on him to defend their life-giving nut grove. From whom? From Scar.
Listen, don't blame Disney that the bad guy ape in 'Chimpanzee' has a scar on his face. Unless they added it in post, he really does have a menacing look! And you can tell that he's evil, because he leans on his side, letting his belly fat roll out like the villain in 'Taken' as his underling pick grubs out of his fur. When he and his army make their move on Oscar's territory, it is shot in the style of the great Hollywood epics. I sat in the audience mumbling “how'd they nail that shot?” over and over and over again.
I'd be a jerk to give away any further key plot points, but the fact that a movie about apes in the wild could actually have spoilers is something of a spoiler itself, wouldn't you say?
Using what boring people like to call “traditional film grammar,” the sequences in 'Chimpanzee' have what look like staged “coverage,” incorporating conventions like shot/reverse-shot. The recurring motif of nut-smashing (and the discouragement found therein) shows that chimps have a natural penchant for physical comedy. The directors, naturally, go bananas exploiting this. (The development of nut-cracking technique is also referred to as the chimps' “cultural heritage,” a moment in pan-species political correctness worth its own NPR essay.)
It's not like I think directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfeld are magicians. Like infinite monkeys and typewriters, I'm thinkin' 'Chimpanzee' was so well funded (and digital filmmaking is getting so agile) that the opportunity to acquire this much footage, and to therefore present it resembling a scripted film, is something that could not have been done before. This speaks, however, to the larger truth that chimpanzees are just a few editing tricks away from being like us. While 'Chimpanzee' goes easy on the usual guilt-tripping conservation messaging, I doubt there will be a more effective tool in this effort to come down the pike in some time.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.