Chimpanzee is the fourth of Disney’s annual Earth Day documentaries—following Earth (2009), the elegant Oceans (2010) and last year’s African Cats—and it’s easily the worst of the lot. This has little to do with the footage that directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have gathered, which is admittedly impressive. (It’s damning praise that the most entertaining part of the film is the behind-the-scenes footage, which plays during the credits.) No, the film’s biggest problem is how simplified—and often scattershot—the whole thing is.
I understand that the idea was to present the film as if seen through the eyes of a child—Chimpanzee’s target audience—and that simplicity is part of the concept. But this self-imposed simplicity is also the film’s biggest problem. I’m not sure I actually learned anything about chimpanzees. For a film that is being promoted as educational, it’s actually somewhat flimsy, and even feels a little dumbed down. But even giving Fothergill and Sinclair the benefit of the doubt, there’s still a slew of strange cinematic decisions in Chimpanzee. We get the normal anthropomorphic presentation of these animals, and the cobbling together of segments to tell a story, but there’s barely enough going on here to justify a feature length. Even at a measly 75 minutes, the film feels thinly stretched. Strange insertions of time-lapsed video of growing fungus don’t help things, serving only to confuse what little plot there is. (Granted, it is neat to look at, but I still have no clue what mushrooms have to do with chimps.)
From reading interviews with Jane Goodall, I understand that some of the footage—like the alpha male of the group adopting a young orphaned chimp—is incredibly rare. But I had to read about this after the fact. Never is this sense of awe or importance passed along to the audience. A lot of the blame goes to the directors, of course, but Tim Allen’s somber narration does nothing to help. Tim Allen is bad enough; sincere Tim Allen is even worse. That he’s allowed to slide into the worst aspects of his persona—including a fit of his patented grunting—does Chimpanzee no favors. Rated G.