From his groundbreaking work on the BBC’s “Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth” series, Alastair Fothergill has established himself as the foremost auteur of nature documentary filmmaking. Directing here with Mark Linfield, he turns his attention to the social structure of chimpanzees, with visually stunning, almost impossibly intimate results. Unfortunately, this footage is welded to a creakily executed story and narrated by a schticky, frequently bellowing Tim Allen, too often betraying the beauty of the imagery. Young kids should love it, promising respectable B.O. returns, but given such once-in-a-lifetime footage, one would have hoped for more.
A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Disneynature production. Produced by Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Alex Tidmarsh. Executive producer, Don Hahn.
Fothergill’s previous Disneynature project, last year’s “African Cats,” also combined elegant photography with a hokey story and kid-friendly narration (from Samuel L. Jackson), but the film at least knew when to let the footage speak for itself, and the superimposed story was more simply sketched.
Here, the narrative concerns an immensely adorable 3-year-old chimp named Oscar, and follows him as he navigates the complex ape hierarchy and learns the ways of his elders. However, a rival band of chimps from the wrong side of the tracks, led by the villainous Scar and always accompanied by doom-laden score cues, is poised to impose on their territory.
After a territorial battle, most of which appears in the form of whip pans and rustling trees, Oscar’s mother is killed, and he must find a new parental figure or risk starvation. If Oscar’s real-life fate mirrors the one depicted here, it reps a genuinely heartwarming turn of events, but given the sometimes visible string-pulling going on to shape the story, one is never sure just how seriously to take things.
Unlike the cheetahs and lions of “African Cats,” the chimps here are so eerily humanlike that giving them jokey personality traits feels even more unnecessary than usual. As expected, the primate behavior on display is fascinating, as deftly framed by the filmmakers; one could watch this band of apes make tools and crack nuts for hours. A particularly masterful sequence sketches out the pack’s intricate strategy for hunting a high-perching group of monkeys, although the presumably brutal aftermath is understandably edited out.
Allen’s narration is clearly aimed toward younger viewers, but his habit of indicating tension by simply yelling frequently breaks the film’s spell, and a forced instance of “Home Improvement” quotation provokes heavy groans.
Like many of Fothergill’s previous projects, “Chimpanzee” is chockfull of art gallery-worthy time-lapse landscape photography, and one insert sequence of falling raindrops causing seed pods to burst into steam could easily be spliced into a new cut of “The Tree of Life” with no one batting an eye. Sound design and editing are thoroughly pro.