** (out of four)
Nothing articulates the persistence and struggle of life in the jungle more than a chimpanzee's use of a large rock, which inspires narrator Tim Allen to mention “power tools” and grunt like his “Home Improvement” character Tim Taylor. Naturally, this gets a big rise out of the animals, who were all big Jonathan Taylor Thomas fans.
That's a joke, of course, as is the increasing trend of Disneynature films (the terrific “Earth,” dull “Oceans” and decent “African Cats”) to put words in the animals' mouths. Throughout “Chimpanzee,” Allen notes history and motivations that these chimps would never know.
“This border has been a battleground for generations,” Allen remarks about the turf war between the movie's friendly family led by Freddy and the rival group led by Scar. Scar, whose name was assumedly chosen by filmmakers in need of a villain, becomes the bad guy because, unlike Freddy, he doesn't roll with a cute baby chimp named Oscar. Only a person made of pure steel wouldn't grin at the sight of young Oscar's attempt to climb a tree, only to relent and return to his mother, Isha.
Among its fellow Disneynature movies, the 75-minute “Chimpanzee” offers the least stunning scenery—that's more than enough shots of the top of the trees, thanks—and only a few revealing moments that capture the animals thinking and learning. Otherwise, the movie seems mostly to exist as an opportunity to compare wildlife to human behavior, even if it means speculating about chimp families’ internal pressures that never play out on screen. The point of these movies should be to observe reality, not to shape reality into the equivalent of a cute animated movie. I’d be more interested in hearing chimps’ thoughts on human behavior when they make a documentary about us.
When riffing on what we don't actually see, co-directors/co-writers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield could pretty much make up whatever they want in pursuit of a story that overworks to assert the “drama, sadness and joy” of the jungle. “Freddy once had feelings for Isha,” Allen may as well say, “but her drunken New Year's Eve rendezvous with Scar ruined any chance of them getting together.”
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