Slim pickings this last weekend, and I ended up watching something I would never normally watch even on television. I am not big on documentary nature films much less on animals. Dogs: yes, chimpanzees: not so much. But there I was, watching “Chimpanzee,” a children’s documentary from Disney, no less. The film is 71 minutes long, but I thought it was the length of a Wagnerian opera.
“Chimpanzee” follows the early months of a chimpanzee’s life. We also see the flora and fauna of the Ivory Coast’s rain forest. Magnificent, but one panoramic shot would have been sufficient for me. I think I saw the same shot three times … but it may have been a mini-stroke on my part.
I seem to be avoiding the story. Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear from Disney’s “Toy Story” franchise) narrates the documentary in a tone that makes it exceedingly obvious that the target audience of this Disney film is tyke. However, there is some heady stuff in “Chimpanzee.” I did not know that chimps eat monkeys. I don’t think that is in the pre-school curriculum either, but now the little ones know Curious George was lucky to live to see the Man in the Yellow Hat. Just saying … or writing in my case. I didn’t know that chimps feasted on Bubbles Tartare because I don’t watch nature shows. And, as a rule, I don’t watch nature shows because I don’t like to sweat or get bitten by insects ... and watching nature films reminds me of all that. I do know that there is a vigorous debate whether Curious George is a monkey or a chimpanzee. Let me put an end to this debate: illustrator H.A. Rey and his writer wife, Margret, referred to George as a “little monkey.” So, Curious: don’t be curious around the chimp house next time your go a-zoo-ing.
As you might expect by any Disney documentary, there is shameless anthropomorphizing. Most of the chimps are given names. And there are good chimps and bad chimps. Tim goes so far as to tell us that the other tribe is a bunch of “thugs.”
The star of “Chimpanzee,” the baby chimp, is given the name, Oscar. We get to see scene after scene of cute, cuddly Oscar doing things like trying to break nuts and eating insects … and suckling at his mother’s breast. And then, mom dies — killed by a neighboring tribe of chimpanzees — headed by an ugly “thug” named “Scar.”
Lots of scenes of poor orphaned Oscar. He goes to an orphanage and asks for an extra bowl of gruel from Mr. Bumble the beadle. Oh, wait, I got my movies confused. I remember now: Oscar has no protection and starts losing weight and is ignored by all the other mama chimps. Poor, poor, Oscar — what is going to happen?
At this point, I wonder if the Disney filmmakers were going to rescue Oscar and make him a sitcom star on one of their cable channels. But no, Allen tells us, something incredible happens. The leader of the pack, Freddie, adopts Oscar, and does all kinds of maternal things, something male chimps never do. Who says humans and chimps aren’t related? Even those males are taking on a domestic role.
Frankly, I was bored to tears. My film-going companion got all gooey and a little weepy from the sentimentality of it all but spent much of her time slapping me to see if I was awake. I wanted to take a rock and see if I could break one open. Alas, a rock was not handy. The nut, was, as I previously noted, present and sitting next to me beating me on and about the shoulder. Perhaps my gaping mouth, droopy eyes, and slight drooling was disturbing to it (the nut, I mean).
Anyway, I remember, as a young child, watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” back in the early ‘60s … and there would be these nature features on the show … which always ruined, for me, pizza night … which was part of our Sunday night ritual. No one asked me, but Chef Boyardee and primates never mixed. So, what I am saying is that I am the wrong writer to review this film.
The little wigglers in the theater, however, are better suited to pass judgment and their little paws made clapping sounds at the end. Even during the film, the chatter-chatter seemed to be more about what was going on the screen than what was out in the lobby. And that, as Tim Allen would say, “something incredible.”
For the sake of the “li’l chil’ren,” I give “Chimpanzee” three and a half bow ties out of five.