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Movie Review: 'Chimpanzee'

Stunning visuals might make these monkeys your business.

Opening on Earth Day weekend, "Chimpanzee," Disneynature's latest True Life Adventure, is a documentary following the challenges of a two year-old chimp they name Oscar as he struggles to survive and find his place within his extended primate family.  

His sweet mug alone is reason to root for him, but there's more to his story than the usual monkey business, and the viewers get to experience his unique journey up close and quite personally on the big screen. 

The visuals of this movie are spectacular, with footage only the most expert nature filmmakers could create, and showing an intimate proximity only expert researchers could access and safely facilitate. Among those responsible for capturing this gorgeous eye candy are co-director/producers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. Fothergill directed Disneynature's "Earth" and "African Cats" as well as TV's "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth," for which he won an Emmy.   Mark Linfield co-directed "Earth" and shared the Emmy for co-producing "Planet Earth."  

They are both well chosen and clearly in their element. It takes determination and patience to film in such challenging conditions, but cinematographer Martyn Colbeck has had much practice. He has captured imagery of wild elephants, monkeys, and natural landscapes, with his long career including episodes of "Nature," "Life," "Planet Earth" and "The Trials of Life."

Bill Wallauer of the Jane Goodall Institute, located in Arlington, was the scientific consultant for "Chimpanzee." He has been filming chimps for many years for the JGI. He says the "Chimpanzee" shoot was very physically demanding, with as many as 18 to 20 hours a day climbing up and down hills in dense vegetation. That is what was required to create this film, and the dedication and expertise by this team of filmmakers shows in every frame.

The script, however, strikes us as Disney kid stuff. It is narrated by Tim Allen, who is not known for his subtlety. He doesn't show any new layers as a voice actor here, but falls back on his "Home Improvement" shtick, using a shout for emphasis or drama.  He, even more than the script itself, is the weakest aspect of the film. Perhaps an actor with more range would have been more universally appreciated and would allow for a wider diversity of viewers to enjoy the narration in addition to the visuals.  

The animals that make up the naturally dramatic story are unnecessarily anthropomorphized and "Disney-fied."  As a nature doc-loving child, I don't remember needing a human drama superimposed on what happens in nature as a matter or course, or even on unique situations like the one represented in "Chimpanzee." I would have preferred more objective observations and educational information. 

Having said that, there is much a child can learn about chimps woven into the story. Parents with young animal lovers who need an engaging story to connect to might find this movie perfect. Also the very anthropomorphizing used in the film are what led Goodall to many of her early discoveries—for it, however, she was accused  of "the worst of ethological sins"**. 

She was criticized, among other things, for naming the members of the primate family she was observing (instead of numbering them), but ultimately proved chimps and humans shared many similar behaviors including cruelty, longterm affection, and of course most famously, the ability to use tools. All these are shown in some way in the film. 

For my own part, it is so visually stunning, I would have been perfectly happy and ultimately just as moved by watching the whole movie without one spoken word.

Those curious or interested in seeing this movie should know time is of the essence. The "See Chimps, Save Chimps" program is in force during the opening week (Friday, April 20 through Thursday, April 26) and means Disney will donate 20 cents of each ticket to the Jane Goodall Institute. Through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, "Chimpanzee" will join the first three Disneynature films "Earth," "Oceans," and "African Cats," in having a percentage of the ticket sales benefitting conservation concerns that relate to each topic.  

Through donations tied to opening week attendance for all three films, Disneynature has planted three million trees in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, established 40,000 acres of marine-protected area in The Bahamas and protected 65,000 acres of savanna in Kenya. The donation from this new film will help fund protection of chimpanzees and their habitats in the Republic of Congo. 

Of this partnership, Jane Goodall said, “JGI has been working in Africa for almost 35 years following on from my research begun in 1960. We are thrilled to extend our impact and efforts through this collaboration to support and celebrate such a wonderful film. Together, we can truly make a difference and are thrilled to have Disneynature join our efforts to protect chimpanzee habitats, care for orphaned chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo and educate a new generation of young people and connect them to nature.” 

For those primate-loving families who can't get to "Chimpanzee" opening week or would rather spend their movie time at the zoo seeing animals in person, there are lots of options for you. The Jane Goodall Institute, whose international headquarters is right up the street in Arlington, suggests getting involved in their Roots & Shoots program. Started in 1991 by Jane Goodall and a group of Tanzanian students, it involves youth in local communities in 120 countries in service projects, campaigns, special events, and an interactive website to effect positive change for animals and the environment. 

Of course there are many ways to make a difference for the environment and animals around the world, but if you personally place importance to Dr. Jane Goodall's 50 years of research as a primatologist, research that has transformed scientific perceptions of the relationship between animals and humans, and continues with the JGI today, you can go on the Jane Goodall Institute website for a wealth of information and educational materials or to find out when Jane Goodall might be lecturing in our area.  

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Find a local Roots and Shoots program near you: http://www.rootsandshoots.org/findagroup
Roots and Shoots information:http://www.rootsandshoots.org/campaigns

Recommended books by Jane Goodall:

  • "My Life With the Chimpanzees"
  • "The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for The Animals We Love" 
  • "Hope for Animals and Their World"
  • "Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey"
  • "Through a Window: My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe"
  • "Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters"
  • "In the Shadow of Man"

Children's Books:

  • "Me…Jane" by Patrick McDonnell (Caldecott 2012 winner) 
  • "The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life With the Chimps" by Jeanette Winter
  • "The Chimpanzee Family Book" by Jane Goodall and Michael Neugebauer 

Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren," is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns , an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. See more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.

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