I used to love the nature stories they’d show on The Wonderful World of Disney, where we’d follow the life of a bear cub or a lemur for an afternoon. They were always the same: very mild documentaries on wildlife, with amazing animal footage and folksy narration that sounded like this: “Ole Buck was a feisty critter, always getting into mischief… uh oh, here comes Jasper the Turtle! Will they get along today?”
If Old Yeller is still the Citizen Kane of boy and his dog movies, then somewhere in the top ten should be Benji The Hunted, the Disney summer flick where Benji is lost in the woods, adopts a cluster of abandoned lion cubs and protects them from a hungry wolf. It’s not The Grey but I know I’ve seen that movie more than The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption.
When it comes to showing how cute and utterly fascinating animals are out in the wild, Disney always had a golden touch. This tradition of quality extends to their Disney Nature films, out every year in time for Earth Day. I was spellbound by Earth and Oceans but this year’s film, Chimpanzee trumps them both.
It follows the early life of a chimp named Oscar. Why is he named that? Beats me. The other chimpanzees in the story have equally cute names like Scar, Freddy and Rufus, presumably because Kong and Caesar would be too intimidating. Anyway, Oscar is enjoying his carefree life until a twist out of Bambi finds him stranded and desperately alone in the jungle. An unlikely and deeply moving friendship saves his life and gives him the parenting he badly lacks.
Like the Disney Nature films that came before it, Chimpanzee is lovely and gorgeous to behold, a vision of the wild worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. The end credits show us how the filmmakers braved terrible weather and trying conditions to get so close and capture such amazing footage. Best of all, the filmmakers reveal that the stunning, animal kingdom friendship they filmed was as surprising for them to witness as it is for the audience.
The sole problem with the previous films is the same here: the narration. Tim Allen’s voice is in every scene and sometimes he helpfully explains the chimpanzee behavior and pushes the story forward. At other times, his cornball comments (“this is Freddy…he’s large and in charge!”) are eye rolling. He doesn’t stoop to inserting “To Infinity and Beyond” into his script but manages to interject his trademark Home Improvement catch phrase at a barely appropriate moment. Allen’s yammering over every beautiful scene is sometimes like Chevy Chase narrating a Terrence Malick film.
Nevertheless, Allen’s feature length audition for The Santa Clause 4 doesn’t totally detract from the experience, especially when the imagery is this amazing. You’ll be surprised to learn what the chimpanzees eat for meat and the footage of them on the hunt and at battle with warring chimps is jaw dropping. So is seeing the chimpanzees working with “tools” and learning to prepare their food.
There are a few intense but bloodless moments that may trouble only the tiniest keiki. Kids around the third grade and up are the perfect audience for this G-rated delight. Lots of family movies work as time killers and distractions but this one will entertain and fill audiences of all ages with awe.
This is the kind of movie that I would have loved seeing on a field trip, during a science class, or after my weekly screening of Benji the Hunted.