By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s difficult to defend this documentary from the accusation that it has a case of the cutes.
But once its central character shows up, how could it not?
The orphaned ape Oscar won’t win an Oscar, but he may run away with the “Cutest Movie Character of the Year” award.
Neither champ nor chump, this chimp is the young title character and focus of Chimpanzee, a G-rated, real-life nature doc with a child-friendly nature set in the African jungle (the Tai Forest National Park in Ivory Coast, to be exact), where we get up close and personal on the chimps’ home turf.
From his birth on, adorable Oscar, and his mother, Isha, must navigate the survival-of-the-fittest wild.
But when his mother dies, vulnerable Oscar is left on his own to fend for himself — without a brother or sister to take care of him, which is usually the case in orphan situations — until he is befriended by improbable father figure Freddy, a fully grown alpha-male chimp who is the leader of their group and who more or less adopts him.
The playful narration by Tim Allen is generally appropriate, but the film squanders the opportunity of being as informative as it is entertaining by playing down to, and sanitizing for, its youthful audience.
Surely the kids would not have ignored the visual buffet just because it played to their heads as well as their hearts.
The directors, documentarians Alastair Fothergill (African Cats) and Mark Linfield, who co-directed Earth, shot Chimpanzee over a four-year period in the tropical jungles of Ivory Coast and Uganda.
Their visual accomplishment is undeniable, but you get the feeling that they have undercut it somewhat with the anthropomorphic description they have endorsed, which seems forced into generic movie-narrative shape.
The cinematography, routinely breathtaking and often downright eye-popping, is sometimes magical in its intimacy, leaving us to marvel at the captured animal behavior that modern moviemaking equipment makes possible, but then still wonder just how the folks behind the lenses managed to insinuate their way in so astonishingly close.
Which leads to the film’s most striking limitation, one which won’t bother the kids, but might annoy the grownups in the audience.
At film’s end, during the final credits, the “making of” footage is displayed and the filmmakers articulate the problems that they had getting all the privileged-moment footage, which included not only extreme weather but confrontations with cheetahs, snakes, spiders, and ants (oh my!). To say nothing of local civil wars and problems with the dark, thick rainforest itself.
“That,” you’ll find yourself thinking, “would have made for a far more interesting movie.” And it’s true: as it stands, the 78-minute film seems closer to an afternoon at the zoo than a satisfying narrative journey.
Call it a wasted opportunity of sorts, but tell yourself that while you’re watching that photogenic little ape do his thing and young viewers respond to him.
So we’ll survive 2½ stars out of 4. If there is such a thing, the kidflick Chimpanzee is perhaps too kid-friendly. But try telling that to a kid. Or a chimp.