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Blu-ray Review: Chimpanzee

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The world in which we live is a magnificent and beautiful place.  Getting to see new nooks and crannies of it; getting to see and hear more stories about people, animals, and everything else in it; and generally becoming more aware of this planet on which we live is a good thing.  Now, if you have fun whilst exploring the world as well, that would just about be the ideal.

For the past five years on every Earth Day, Disneynature has brought us a new look at some aspect of our world.  Their latest film, Chimpanzee, was released on Earth Day in 2012 and has just now hit Blu-ray.  Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, Chimpanzee is the story of one baby chimpanzee and his first few years of life.  It is a touching, engaging story and one which features the same great cinematography the other Disneynature films offer and that is truly the reason to watch.

The film is narrated by Tim Allen.  He gives us this story of a young chimpanzee, Oscar, and Oscar’s tribe of chimps.  Well, it’s not exactly Oscar’s tribe as Oscar is but a baby, but you get the idea. 

At the outset of the film we see how Oscar grows and strengthens and explores his boundaries.  Things rapidly shift however, and as publicized as those shifts are in much of what you read about the film, to me, they would be considered “spoilers.”  Had I known where Oscar’s personal journey was headed when I began the film, I would have been greatly displeased.

What I will discuss is the unfortunate way in which the film builds the backdrop to Oscar’s personal life.  There is, nearly from the outset, a discussion of this other, seemingly evil, group of Chimps led by Scar.  Now, while the film doesn’t denote them as evil, a Disney film using a famous Disney villain’s name for the head of the opposing force (and Scar does lead the opposing force) means something.  This natural fight for food between the two groups is a through line in the movie, but it feels overly forced.  The film is far too invested in making this tale of animosity work, and attempts to create this strong narrative where it seems not to exist.  Yes, there is a battle between the two groups, but this relatively short feature (78 minutes) spends so much time creating this obvious tale of fighting that they have too little time left for other things.

What we lose by telling the story of the fight between these two groups of chimps is a larger and deeper look at the world in which they live.  We are given too much surface and not enough substance.

This issue is only enhanced by Allen’s narration.  The comedian all too often reverts to foolish one-liners rather than a full-fledged explanation.  Putting fewer words into Oscar’s mouth (and everyone else’s) and more into the actual things that re going on with Oscar’s tribe would go  a long way to making this a better documentary.

Despite these shortcomings however, the movie succeeds and it does so on the backs of the camera crews.  What you see here is well and truly astounding – we get up close with Oscar’s home and his tribe in ways that were impossible just a few decades ago.  On Blu-ray, the film is an absolute jewel.  The super-saturated colors are wondrous, as is the incredible amount of detail and definition present.  The night filming is particularly stupendous, but truly the entire look of the film will “wow” you.  The same is true of the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix.  You are not just watching what happens to Oscar, the soundtrack puts you right there in the rainforest with him.  You are there as the other animals approach, you are there as the rain pours down, you are there in the middle of everything that happens.  The entire package is a testament to the amazing work done by the crews in the field and those back home in the editing suite.  The movie is well worth watching for the shots of the rainforest alone.

A pretty good multi-part on location behind the scenes piece exists in the special features.  It shows what went into the actual filming and really gives a very good idea of the effort required.  A music video, an ultra-short behind the scenes piece on the music video, as well as two pieces about Disney supporting the environment are also included along with a DVD of the movie.  It isn’t really the most in-depth or best thought out set of special features as the Disney talking Disney’s supporting of the environment pieces end up feeling like far too much self-promotion, but the behind the scenes one is still worthwhile, but the others are wholly forgettable.

What will stick with you about Chimpanzee is the incredible look of the movie.  That and some foolish narration by Tim Allen.  The movie isn’t everything it should have been—more gravitas and less humor would have made it better—but it is still a visual feast and worth experiencing.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.