Aw, We Think He’s Human: Disneynature’s ChimpanzeeS

This year's Disneynature's Earth Day documentary offering, Chimpanzee, is the latest in a rash of documentaries about the emotional lives of animals to emerge in the past year or so. Project Nim, One Lucky Elephant and The Whale (my favorite of the bunch because it was responsible for one of the most moving cinema experiences I've ever had) dissect and bemoan humans' complicated relationship with those whom we share Earth with – the good, the bad, the exploitative. Those three movies present stories of direct human interaction and, more specifically, how human interruption can severely fuck up innocent animal lives.

Chimpanzee, in contrast, stops by an alien world and doesn't intervene (at least, not as part of its conceit). It merely projects a host of human-oriented emotions and experiences upon a tribe of chimps. This is so unmistakable that the film carries a mondo-like lack of pretension and disinterest in objectivity. It stops just short of having narrator Tim Allen (who probably had to be physically restrained from doing his "Ug ug ug" shtick) announce, "We are really trying to relate to these beasts in the best way that we know how: through ourselves."

The heavy-handedness may offend some sensibilities, but Chimpanzee is otherwise a thing of retina-burning beauty. Chimpanzee pops like 3D without the glasses. You can feel the greens of its African rainforest setting on the back of your tongue. There are stunning aerial shots of a body of water and reality-defying time-lapse sequences of spiders spinning webs and vines intertwining. Bioluminescent fungus makes a mind-bending cameo and a river of army ants washes over the screen a sense of creepiness that's so tangible it stings.

Chimpanzee's animal protagonists look as great as their surroundings (count their eyelashes) and the movie spends plenty of time presenting their ways, essentially just letting chimps be chimps. A remarkable story emerges when the baby chimpanzee that we follow most closely, Oscar, is orphaned (his mother probably studied Disney movie tropes and knew she had to expire). Amazingly, his group's standoffish, behemoth alpha, Freddy, adopts him. Their bond is beautiful and pure. The turn is so narrative that I wonder what the movie would have been had the unlikely companionship not been forged as these chimps were being studied.

Something tells me that directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (both Disneynature vets) would have found a way. For as fundamentally enthralling as the act of watching our the closest extant relatives is, Chimpanzee anthropomorphizes its subjects beyond what anyone would expect from a documentary. The script finds Allen routinely reading the chimps' minds and translating their thoughts into those of people. As Oscar's mother, Isha, eats the nuts she just cracked, Allen editorializes, "Yup, here we go. Yum yum." During ant eating, we hear: "Boy! That is spicy!" There are several examples of such imposed internal dialogue.

A rival group of chimps that Oscar's group battles for turf are introduced as the bad guys (their "formidable leader" is named Scar, just like the antagonist of Disney's The Lion King). There's no acknowledgement that had this film crew followed a different, just as adorable baby chimp on the other side, it is in fact Oscar's group that would be the adversaries. There's no reference to the adversaries' right to exist being just as strong as any creature's. It's all about as arbitrary as assigning these chimps names in the first place.

It's not merely a function of humanity to impose our own behavior in animals; what we see in Chimpanzee is unadulterated Disneyfication, a method of making the film relatable to kids of all ages. But ultimately, we are presented with a series of translations, estimates and white lies for the sake of activism. (Both abstract and literal: proceeds from opening-week ticket sales will go to the Jane Goodall Institute.)

If movies like this and the other animal docs I referenced are a way of instilling people with a little more compassion, a little more awareness of humanity's barbarism, negligence and commodification of the sentient creatures we exist among, they're performing a worthwhile service. It may ring false or provide too much cuddliness for the masses, but I'd bet that those who want to hear this message the least need to hear it the most.

Image via Disneynature.