Disneynature's fourth release, shot in the Tai forest of Africa's Ivory Coast, melts hearts with its stunning chimpanzee footage, but sours audience humor with its dumbed-down narration. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, of "African Cats" and "Earth," oversee a crew of camera operators and equipment that bring us close enough to touch a troupe of chimpanzees - especially adorable little Oscar.
The story sets up Oscar's group, led by 20-year-old Freddy, as the good guys. But from across the ravine, a larger troupe eyes their territory with its supply of fruit and nuts. We are told these interlopers are a team of bruisers led by Scar, and indeed we see a handful of formidable warriors, any one of whom may be responsible for Scar's notched upper lip.
Meanwhile, back at the nice-guy troupe, Oscar's patient mother Isha cares for his every need. Bedtime presents its own set of challenges, as does teaching him what to eat and how each food is acquired and consumed. Nature doc enthusiasts know chimps use sticks to gather insects, but it surprising to learn they are also expert nut crackers, and possess an ingenious strategy to glean the nutrition from a dry, woody fruit.
Events both large and small are foreshadowed by Tim Allen's narration, but the script takes this a step further, describing each thing we see, and some things we don't. High on the "don't-see list" is the actual kill of an otherwise well-chronicled monkey hunt. Also making the list are the injuries inflicted when the chimp groups clash. During these confrontations the sounds made by chimp displays and the screams attending their encounters are heard, but the camera maintains a discreet distance. What we do see is a stand of quaking trees and falling leaves that reinforces the fury of such battles.
The morning after finds a darkened jungle canopy wrapped in mist, the very image of a Japanese ink rendering. Narration informs us that Isha, badly injured in the battle, became separated from the group then fell prey to a leopard, leaving little Oscar to fend for himself. Having invested in Oscar's fate, the film follows his efforts to find a new parent. Initially, it appears he will not succeed.The film strongly suggests the six-month-old Oscar is too young to make it on his own. The events that follow are truly remarkable.
A year of filming in the jungle was necessary to capture this footage, and many hours were spent assembling that footage to achieve a 76-minute movie and a family-friendly G-Rating. At their best, this and other Disneynature releases provide counter-programming for families seeking something more than loud, frenetic kids stories. At their worst, they doubt viewer intelligence.
Adults may experience a nagging sense of a story over-edited. We focus on just a few members of Oscar's tribe, never really learning its dynamic. Likewise, Scar's troupe receives even less investigation, briefly showing us the faces of a half dozen males who we are told are waiting to replace Scar. The best DVD release will provide additional viewing options that address these deficits, including the elimination of that pesky narration.