Apeshit, by Tyler Smith
It astounds me just how much a film is really made in the post production process. In many ways, it really doesn’t matter all that much what kind of footage a director gets, if the editing, music, sound, and all the rest isn’t working, the film is just a big waste of time and energy. A good example of this is Chimpanzee, the latest documentary from Disneynature. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, this film is has everything a person would want in a nature documentary; a compelling subject photographed beautifully.
And yet it doesn’t quite work. The reason for this can probably be boiled down to Disney. Not unlike last year’s African Cats, Chimpanzee is not allowed to simply exist. An easy to understand story must be thrust upon it, usually in the form of intrusive and distracting narration. The film is narrated by Disney staple Tim Allen, and the producers really seem to want us to appreciate that fact. There is a conversational tone that doesn’t really fit with the majestic photography, combined with knowing references to Allen’s career. When the chimps use pieces of wood to break open nuts, Allen really lays it on thick, talking about using the right tool for the right job. When the pieces of wood won’t do, and heavy rocks are utilized, this gives Allen the opportunity to talk about “power tools.” Because, you see, Tim Allen’s stand-up act and his subsequent sitcom Home Improvement were all about manly men and their love of power tools; exactly the kind of thing we should be thinking about when watching a nature documentary!
I do not really blame Allen for this. He was brought in to narrate for a reason. He has a very good voice, as evidenced from the Toy Story films and the various commercial voice-overs he has done. When it comes right down to it, this is the directors’ fault. It is perfectly fine to bring in a well-known actor to narrate, but in allowing- perhaps even encouraging- the narration to become so distracting, they are doing a disservice to their subject.
Strangely enough, this is just one of the ways in which the narration ruins the film. Perhaps even more frustrating is the directors’ choice to impose a simplistic narrative on the proceedings. The story is certainly interesting. A young chimp named Oscar loses his mother and is taken in by the alpha male of the troop. This is not a regular occurrence, as alpha males usually keep to themselves and assert their dominance whenever possible. That this unlikely relationship happens naturally makes for a pretty endearing story already, but the directors just can’t seem to help themselves. They have to go a little further.
Oscar’s troop of chimpanzees rules over a specific section of the jungle, where they have access to a wealth of fruits and nuts. There is, however, another troop of chimps over the ridge that has designs on these resources. The film documents the clashes between these two troops over territory. Combined with the more personal story of Oscar, and Chimpanzee is already pretty compelling. But, through that damned narration, the directors go out of their way to make the rival troop seem like savage villains. Where Oscar’s troop is described as a family, the opposing troop is like an army; cold, calculating, deadly. If you needed any more proof of this, please consider that the alpha male of Oscar’s tribe is given the delightful name Freddie. Freddie; sounds like a fun-loving guy to me. Wanna try to guess what the name of the other troop’s leader might be?
Yeah, that’s right. In a nature documentary, the standard of which is to remain nonjudgmental of the animal kingdom, the directors have chosen to evoke the murderous villain from The Lion King. It is touches like this that make Chimpanzee feel so hollow and frustrating. It’s as though the filmmakers don’t trust their subject matter.
This story is interesting. The photography is beautiful. I wish the directors had been content to leave it at that. But, instead, perhaps because this is a Disney film- and, thus, meant to appeal to the widest possible audience- Chimpanzee lazily grabs for the low hanging fruit.
I’m disappointed that the film is not better. I was looking forward to a story that explored the nature of intra-species aggression and altruism. I also figured that Tim Allen was cast perfectly as the narrator. It’s unfortunate that the story and dialogue suffers from Disnyization, but it’s not surprising