Shockingly off-the-cuff filmmaking leads to dull, cutesy nature doc

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2 Stars

There's a reason the Writer's Guild of America annually bestows an award for the seemingly contradictory category of Documentary Screenplay: Ordinarily, documentaries have a pre-shoot outline to fulfill so that at least there's a road map of a story, even, and especially, if circumstances change during filming. But Disneynature, the Mouse House offshoot responsible for prior Earth Day documentaries Earth, Oceans and African Cats, shot Chimpanzee for three years in Africa without any idea how it'd become a feature. After seeing the film, they clearly still have no idea what to do with the footage.

In the absence of narrative, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield fall back on the prevalent nature-TV escape hatch of anthropomorphizing what would otherwise be dull. As narrator Tim Allen says in the opening, theirs, too, is a world “of drama, sadness and joy.” Fothergill and Linfield proceed to spotlight Oscar, a baby chimpanzee learning the ways of the world from his mother, Isha (as usual, the filmmakers give the animals human names to make them more relatable). It's a cutesy novelty, but not a compelling thesis.

What's more, not much happens. After Isha teaches Oscar how to eat, sleep, etc., nothing changes until more than halfway in, when Oscar has to fend for himself. In one scene, troop leader Freddy leads the pack in surrounding a group of monkeys and luring them into a trap. Once again, nothing of substance follows, and the filmmakers' one painfully obvious observation – “Wow, our evolutionary cousins, with whom we share almost identical DNA, can think and junk!” – emerges as, horrifyingly, their substitute for an actual plot.

To their credit, Fothergill and Linfield try to keep things visually dynamic with a time-lapsed blooming flower or web-spinning spider here and there, but they struggle with the action sequences; when a rival troop of chimps attacks, it's hard to make out who's who amid the bedlam. Allen does what he can with the narration, but silly non sequiturs, like “Don't forget the side salad,” as the chimps revert to leaves after feasting on a dead monkey, feel childish and trite.

No G-rated movie from Disney ever would or could be much edgier than this, but it should be meatier. Unfortunately, Chimpanzee was flawed from its inception, and if our ancestors of the wilderness have taught us anything, it's that strategic planning fills the belly every time.

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