Blu-Ray Review: Chimpanzee

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There is no question that Chimpanzee, the fourth documentary in the Disneynature label, is an incredibly ambitious film.  So why would the filmmakers choose to take an amazingly shot film that practically writes itself and accompany it with their most juvenile voice-over to date?  I’ve come to terms with the fact that most of the nature documentaries that come out anthropomorphize their subjects.  It helps keep things interesting if the viewer is able to identify with the subject matter.  But in telling the story of “Oscar,” the baby chimpanzee that is the subject of this film, Tim Allen’s narration reduces the proceedings to a preschool level, negating any emotional investment in exchange for 78 minutes of “awwww.”

All of this is a real shame as their is a compelling, though overly simplistic, story at the heart of the film.  It really boils down to the following:  Oscar is born, Oscar is raised by his mother, Oscar’s mother is killed (off camera), none of the other mothers will care for Oscar, and finally, Oscar is “adopted” by Freddy, the Alpha Male of the group.  Throw in a rival gang of chimps threatening the wellbeing of this group, and you have a solid little movie.  Unfortunately, Allen’s narration doesn’t so much guide the viewer through the events of the film as it tries to put the viewer into a toddler’s mindset.

Featuring winning dialogue such as “Mr. Nut, meet Mr. Rock,” and even a Home Improvement style grunt at his own mention of power tools, this is real lowest-common denominator stuff.  I get the thinking behind this.  Oscar is a toddler, so we as the audience, should see things from that perspective.  When this is overused, however, it ceases to feel like a documentary but rather overly manufactured fluff.

Thank goodness then the film is so gorgeous on a visual level.  As expected from the Disneynature brand, the filmmakers have taken us into a stunning world seldom seen by man.  They manage to get right into the middle of the subject’s world, and it never feels as if we are voyeurs just watching from the sidelines.  The Blu-Ray has a fascinating behind-the-scenes feature detailing the extensive, multi-year process that went into shooting this film.  I already appreciated the incridble work of these filmmakers, but I respect what they went through even more after seeing the actual process involved.

This feature, called “On Location: The Making of Chimpanzee,” runs slightly over 38 minutes, and is a fascinating look at every aspect of production.  Alternating between inspiring and incredibly uncomfortable (the “Forest of Bees” must be seen to be believed), this is a feature that must be seen by anybody interested in the nature-documentary process.  Unfortunately, most of the other extras feel like little more than commercials for Disney as they hype up their own environmental programs.  I’m not disparaging any of these programs, but I don’t know if I would really classify them as “bonus features.” Their is also a music video by the McClain Sisters and a very brief “behind-the-scenes” feature of this video.

Chimpanzee has been released in a 2-Disc combo pack, featuring both the Blu-Ray and the DVD.  While not my favorite of the Disneynature series of films, kids will fall in love with Oscar, and while Allen’s narration fails to enhance the experience of the film, it doesn’t negate the visual wonder that makes this a must-see film.