Extended Thoughts on ‘Chimpanzee’

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Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

Written by Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, and Don Hahn

Narrated by Tim Allen

If you’ve been listening to Mousterpiece Cinema long enough, you probably know that I’m a cat person. I’ve mentioned, offhandedly, on the show how the Disney animated canon manages to often make cats into villains, except in a couple of notable examples where cats are the leads; unfortunately, the two movies I’m thinking of where that’s the case are two of the worst they’ve ever made. The point, though, is that I love cats. I really love all animals (and honestly, who doesn’t?). I can’t imagine that I’m alone in linking human characteristics to my pets. Do my cats actually have unique personalities as I and my wife do? Or am I just anthropomorphizing them to relate to them more easily? I want to believe the answer isn’t as easy as a firm “Yes” or “No,” but something in between.

Whether or not my cats have traces of grouchiness or sweetness or any other human characteristic, we can safely agree that I’m not hurting or misleading anybody by personifying them. I care for my cats, I feed them, I do everything a good pet owner does. Frankly, as long as I don’t start dressing them in clothing (and that will never happen), I’m not worried about a little anthropomorphization. However, as the scale gets grander, anthropomorphizing animals becomes more and more troubling. This happens most frequently with nature documentaries, which are ostensibly presenting a completely true and accurate story to audiences worldwide. Because people personify animals in their daily lives, it’s not nearly as striking when a documentary does so, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something filmmakers should avoid at all costs.

Chimpanzee, the new documentary from the DisneyNature arm of the Walt Disney Company, does not avoid it, and fails in the process. Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the film is alternately beautiful and obnoxious, awe-inspiring and infuriating. On the one hand, the footage that Fothergill and Linfield, along with their dedicated crew, produce of chimpanzees living in the jungles of Uganda and the Ivory Coast are often gorgeous to look at. If you’ve seen recent nature documentary series such as Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, you know the earth-bound glory that can be viewed on HD televisions. The footage here is just as jaw-dropping as anything from those BBC shows. Everything accompanying that footage is enormously problematic and frequently disturbing in its editorial implications. Even in describing the film’s plot, we get into tetchy territory, because should there actually be a plot to a nature documentary? You can show me the world of the chimpanzees, and let me see their daily routines, but a plot feels more scripted.

And Chimpanzee feels very scripted, thanks in no small part to the ever-present and frequently unnecessary narration provided by Tim Allen. I made no bones about my dread of hearing Allen’s voice pervade this film before I saw it, and it turns out I had good reason to be concerned. I worried that he was cast primarily so he could do his trademark grunt—and isn’t it sad to think that’s a person’s trademark?—that was part and parcel of his work on the ABC sitcom Home Improvement. Leaving aside any debate about whether or not that show was or remains entertaining and funny—I would be lying if I told you I didn’t watch it as a kid, but I imagine it doesn’t hold up—I think it’s inappropriate to insert so much of a narrative personality into a relatively straightforward view of life in the jungle. If anything, making the narrator such a part of the action almost reeks of desperation on the directors’ part. If the footage in the film is good enough (and it is), they shouldn’t feel the need to inundate the audience with unfunny humor and diversions.

Not all of the narration is so cheap and stupid. (Anecdotal evidence, but not a single person in the theater where I saw the movie laughed or audibly giggled at anything Allen said. They may have been smiling, but they weren’t loud. They had chances.) Unfortunately, that which is not dumb is inappropriate editorializing. At this point, it’s best to unload the plot of the film. We’re following a troop of chimpanzees throughout the 80-minute film, lead by Freddy, the alpha male. One of the females in the troop, Eesha, gives birth to Oscar, who’s our protagonist. We watch Oscar live his daily life with the other chimpanzees, from learning to climb trees to cracking nuts. We see him attach himself constantly to Eesha, and we watch as the chimps, including Freddy, attack smaller monkeys for food. Eventually, this troop butts heads with another troop of chimps, led by Scar, who will do whatever it takes to get the food from Freddy’s side of the jungle. Scar and his band of thugs, his army, his gang, his mob, are a true threat, not just to Freddy, but to Oscar and Eesha.

You saw what I did there, though. I added some details to that paragraph, some things that aren’t actually true. Let’s start with the names. Oscar is the name of the baby chimp we follow throughout the film. But…who named him Oscar? Eesha didn’t. Eesha isn’t her name, either. The mother of the baby chimp doesn’t have a name, nor does her child. Scar isn’t the name of the antagonistic chimpanzee, either. The people working on the film decided to name these chimpanzees. And sure, for the purpose of a nature documentary that is ostensibly targeted at children, giving them identifying qualities like names is helpful. But we don’t need these chimpanzees to have names to be invested in their daily struggle. The footage does the work for us. In some ways, the flaws of this movie make me think the people involved—or maybe the higher-ups at Disney—didn’t trust the target audience to figure out what was happening onscreen.

The most troublesome element of that editorializing is in characterizing Scar. The words “thugs,” “army,” “gang,” and “mob” are all employed in the narration to describe Scar’s fellow chimps. This is not a case where I can guess that Scar is bad, or I know he’s bad. This is a case where the narration, credited to Fothergill, Linfield, and producer Don Hahn, is absolutely wrongheaded and offensive. There is no legitimate way to categorize what Scar and his chimpanzees are doing as villainous in any way. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the very real fact that these aren’t humans, and focus on the actual decisions the chimps make. Scar and his group are vilified for going after a grove of nuts that lies in Freddy’s side of the jungle. In targeting this food, Scar and his group attack Freddy and their chimps, when the latter group tries to defend their land. Even this description allows some humanizing qualities, with words such as “defend” and “attack.” But that’s what’s happening: Freddy’s group wants the land they have, Scar’s group also wants it and will fight for it, and so it goes.

The question is simple: what if the roles were reversed? What if Scar and his chimps were on the land with the nut grove? What if Freddy and his chimps had no food, and chose to steal from Scar’s side? Oh, and what if there was a cute baby chimp on Scar’s side? Frankly, there may well be such a chimp on his side, but the movie doesn’t tell us. By demonizing these chimpanzees, as opposed to just letting the action unfold, the directors inject too much of themselves into the proceedings. That is, in essence, the major problem with Chimpanzee: it’s less about the eponymous creature, and more about the humans making the film, in one way or another.

I don’t need a celebrity narrator to inject his or her personality into a nature documentary. I don’t need the film’s directors creating some outlandish good vs. evil saga. Michael brought this up on the podcast, and it speaks to my concerns perfectly: if you watched this movie with the soundtrack (it’s by Nicholas Hooper and was a bit bombastic for my tastes), but not the narration, would you understand what was going on? Somehow, DisneyNature thinks we do, assuming that its audience is peopled with idiots. Kids are—and haven’t we been saying this for years?—far more intelligent than people give them credit for. Are they Rhodes scholars at age 6? No, but they’re not nincompoops, in general. Give them a bit of leeway, cut out the majority (if not the entirety) of the narration, and Chimpanzee would be a perhaps underseen but truly special film. What we got instead was 80 minutes of beautiful imagery coupled with condescension.

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