Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Review of Disney’s Chimpanzee

I hope all of you had a wonderful Earth Day this past weekend. I just thought I’d post a brief review of Disney’s new documentary Chimpanzee which is out in theaters now, released last weekend in honor of Earth Day. (After all, Disney and Mormons go together like ice cream and cake, right?) A portion of the proceeds from the opening week’s ticket sales will be donated to the Jane Goodall Institute to expand the Tchimpounga Nature Reserve in the Republic of Congo, so I’d recommend checking it out before Thursday if possible.

The film is narrated by Tim Allen and directed by Alastair Fothergill (a name that will be well-known to anyone who loves nature documentaries). The documentary tells the story of a young baby chimpanzee named Oscar and his family as they scratch out a humble living in the Ugandan forest. I don’t want to give away the big “reveal” of the film, but Oscar’s story highlights some very unusual chimpanzee behavior that has never been documented by biologists before now. It’s amazing that they were able to be in the right place at the right time to capture it on film.

First, let me say that I enjoyed the film quite a bit. The cinematography was absolutely beautiful and the story moved me on an emotional level. I think that it’s a great family film that could entertain adults and children of all ages. The particular audience I watched the film with clearly enjoyed the documentary. They laughed at the jokes, cooed at the chimp babies, and gasped at all the dramatic scenes. For what it’s trying to achieve, the film really succeeds.

The only criticisms I can offer are the same ones I usually feel when watching Disney nature documentaries. Stylistically, these documentaries always seem to anthropomorphize the animals that are being filmed—ascribing human characteristics to animals in order to “humanize” them and make their actions more accessible to general audiences. Now, I would never scoff at any documentary that can get people to care about animals (especially endangered ones) on a personal level. But I am somewhat concerned that scientific integrity can potentially get sacrificed on the altar of entertainment in these kinds of films.

Perhaps it’s because I’m used to watching BBC nature documentaries, but I frequently felt frustrated that Chimpanzee focused on the emotional or visual value of the images rather than on their informational content. For example, there was a section of the film that showed some amazing bio-luminescent mushrooms that grew in the forest at night. I was dying to know more about those mushrooms: what species it was, what evolutionary advantage bio-luminescence could have, what were its chemical properties. Had I been watching a BBC documentary, my curiosity would have been satisfied. But Disney films leave me with a hollow hunger for something more substantive. Again, I recognize that the film’s primary objective was to tell a story rather than to educate audiences (per se). But I think that films like March of the Penguins have proven that audiences can be responsive to both. Entertainment and information are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

My last regret about the film is that it buried an important statistic too deeply in the credits. According to the film credits, over one million chimpanzees were documented living in the wild in 1960. Today only one-fifth of that number remains. I realize the film was doing its best to avoid being preachy, but by the time that statistic flashed on the screen during the credits, I was the only one remaining in the theater. To me, that represents a lost opportunity to educate people about the very real threat that these chimpanzees are facing from endangerment.

All in all, I would recommend seeing Chimpanzee. It was a delightful film that will be fun for the whole family. And if it gets people to want to study chimpanzees on a deeper level or to care about helping endangered species, then I really have no reason to complain.

For more information about the film and how you can help chimpanzees, visit http://disney.go.com/disneynature/chimpanzee/

  • avatar Anonymous says:

    For anthropomorphism, my favorite film is “Animals Are Beautiful People” (1974).  But that’s more of a comedy than a documentary.
    I’m looking forward to watching Chimpanzee.  Thanks for the review.