(2012) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Tim Allen (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
Watching chimpanzees in their own natural habitat is not unlike looking at our aboriginal beginnings. They live in tribal families, forage for food in an unforgiving environment, utilize tools to crack open nuts and are fiercely territorial. Sounds a lot like modern man to me.
Oscar, a baby chimp, is nurtured by his fiercely protective mom Isha. As is true with most moms, she tries to teach her son everything she can so that he can take care of himself when the time comes for him to be on his own. Unfortunately, that comes much sooner than expected.
Oscar’s tribe has rivals. Led by Scar, they have pretty much eaten themselves out of their own territory and crave the rich nut groves of their rivals. Their survival in fact depends on it as does Oscar’s tribe, who will defend their territory with their lives. It’s tough to be a chimp.
Something incredible happens however. After Isha is killed, Oscar is in dire straits. Unable to forage for himself, lacking the experience and the know-how to feed himself, he slowly begins to starve to death. However, the alpha male of his tribe, Freddy, decides to adopt the baby and raise him as his own. Some naturalists have theorized that this occurs in the wild; however, this is the first time such an occurrence has been captured on film.
The visuals are dazzling. Filmed in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest, the movie gives us a sense of both the harshness and the grandeur of the primeval location. It took four years to film this and the resulting footage is worth every moment of hardship and danger (some of which was documented on First Look pre-show featurettes that screened in a number of movie theaters nationwide in March, hinting at an extensive home video extra features cache when the movie becomes available on DVD and Blu-Ray) that the crew endured to film in the remote location.
I’ve discovered that the narration by Tim Allen is a bit polarizing. Many critics I’ve read have damned his work, saying that it demeaned the animals and was too jokey. Personally I found it entertaining; Disney has a tendency to anthropomorphize their nature documentaries, making the animals more accessible to children who in Disney wisdom need it to relate to their stories (which I think personally is demeaning to children, but that’s just me). If you’re going to create personalities for the animals, you might as well have a narrator who can make it interesting and Allen does that. Some may find it annoying however – so be warned.
Personally, I’d love to see a DisneyNature feature that is a little more nature and a little less Disney. They send teams of camera crews to get this stunning footage and then don’t trust the footage to stand on its own. While I agree narrators are generally necessary to give background information and provide some context, it isn’t necessary for them to assign human traits to the animals or infer what they’re thinking. It is possible to relay information about animals without making it sound dry; it’s just a difficult line to walk. I wish more would attempt it is all.
The footage here is amazing, some of the best that DisneyNature has come up with in their four releases to date. Sadly, there was no preview for their next film (as they have traditionally done with all their releases until now) so there’s a very real possibility this may be the last DisneyNature release for awhile – let’s hope not. I’d love to see some looks at animal life in the Australian outback, in China, or the rain forests of South America. These days most nature documentaries seem to be stuck in Africa and the Arctic, which is fine because there is plenty to see but the world is a diverse place and I’d love to see some nature documentaries set in other places as well.
Really small kids might have some difficulty with the jeopardy that Oscar is placed in and at the off-screen death of his mom. Parents should expect some hard questions to come up when they leave the theater, but certainly their kids should fall in love with the majesty of the forest that is displayed here – I know this adult did.
REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography, clever narration by Allen and compelling storyline.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more background about chimp habits and behaviors.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing here your kids shouldn’t see (and won’t want to).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening weekend box office of $10.2 million was the most ever for a nature documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.The reviews are solidly positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jane’s Journey
TRACKING SHOT LOVERS: The filmmakers used a zip line and a specially designed camera to create the smooth tracking shots of the rain forest that frame the documentary and are stunning to look at.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders of the Lost Ark