Anyone who spends time around kids knows they're not exactly a tough audience when it comes to movies. Toddlers will watch the same DVD on repeat for days if you let them, mostly because they feel empowered by knowing what comes next. And since slightly older children respond well to funny voices and colorful characters, formula cartoons usually suffice as long as the action doesn't stop.
No one knows this better than Disney. The company's lackluster animated output in recent years — apart from the gold-standard work of Pixar, which Disney purchased in 2006 — proves that sometimes a beloved brand is all you need in the marketplace. So it's hard to imagine why Disney would undermine an otherwise outstanding nature film like Chimpanzee by pandering to the little ones with odd and ill-fitting storybook narration.
Four years in the making, Chimpanzee's amazing raw footage represents the kind of serendipity seldom enjoyed by documentary filmmakers. British directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, both of whom served as producers on the BBC's wonderful Planet Earth series, had almost given up on finding a Disney-ready story about primates in the jungles of Africa's Ivory Coast when they came upon the extended family of chimpanzees that stars in the movie. An adorable baby chimp they named Oscar was instantly ready for his close-up. High drama ensued: Oscar loses his doting mother and is rejected by each member of his group. Survival seems unlikely until Freddy, the group's massive alpha-male leader, adopts Oscar. This was something scientists had not encountered before. Those not enthralled by footage of Freddy giving Oscar piggyback rides over rough terrain or patiently teaching him how to survive in the wild should probably watch a different movie.
The film loses steam as its focus turns to war with a rival group of chimps over a life-sustaining grove of nut trees. But the real enemy is actor Tim Allen, whose gee-whiz delivery of the film's nearly information-free narration borders on an act of animal cruelty. Oscar is described as "precious" and the rival band of chimps are dismissed as "thugs." Extraordinary sights like the fluorescent mushroom-type things that light up the jungle floor at night are left unexplained. Amazingly, the leader of the rival chimps is actually called "Scar," which is the name of the villain in Disney's classic animated The Lion King. Doesn't Disney know that kids understand what it means when grown-ups roll their eyes? There's nothing more universal than nonverbal gestures of disdain. Age barriers just don't apply.
Chimpanzee appears to have its heart in the right place. Twenty cents from every movie ticket sold during the movie's first week in theaters will be donated to the Jane Goodall Institute, which has spent decades protecting chimpanzees. And Goodall herself legitimized the movie last week by pushing it on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But the film delivers its only real message about conservation at the very end of the closing credits, after everyone has left the theater. Both the kids and the chimps probably deserved better. — KEN KORMAN