Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Disneynature’s Chimpanzee

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Oscar sleeping with his surrogate father, Freddy.

The Hunger Games film to see this past weekend was not, as it turns out, called Hunger Games. It was the latest Disneynature documentary, Chimpanzee.

The film, which opened on Friday, reminded me of that big box-office dystopian smash about youth fighting to the death because it had many similar elements: lush cinematography, bands of cute characters struggling to survive, minimal and inconsequential dialogue, and lots of hiding in trees. But where Chimpanzee blows Hunger Games away is in its Hominidae characters, demonstrating more signs of humanity and identifiable emotion than any of the bubblegum acting did in that other film.

Despite my enthusiasm to see Chimpanzee — I wanted to be a nature photographer as a child thanks to watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the show that preceded The Wonderful World of Disney — I was wary of the Disneyfication of nature. And, indeed, the film, narrated by Tim Allen, does anthropomorphize its subjects, with several instances of Allen talking directly to the lead of the film, a young chimp named Oscar. We follow Oscar through his early life with his mom, his maturation, his loss of his mom (hey, it’s Disney film, after all), and his surprising adoption by another chimp.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, who co-directed the first Disneynature release, Earth, in 2007, have a track record for capturing nature at its fullest. In Chimpanzee, I felt like I could touch the fur in the close-ups of the chimps in the trees. And the wide shots, which take us above and through the jungle canopy, are astounding. But where they’ve taken a great leap forward is in finding a way to tell a strong narrative tale, without being offensive or too reductive.

I’m not sure where it is exactly that they tweak reality to fit it into Oscar’s narrative, but anyone who’s aware of the subtle manipulations most documentary directors commit during the making of a film — editing events as if they happened sequentially even if they didn’t, using a shot of one thing (a man aimlessly looking out a window) and suggesting he’s doing something else (looking at a specific person through the window) — should give them some slack. My sensitivity meter was never tipped.

And, sure, perhaps a more serious nature film could have been made here. And Chimpanzee does feel a bit slight, but I was impressed that the film kept to Oscar’s story. It rarely wanders. And, anyway, the purpose of a film like Chimpanzee, in addition to making money, is to entertain a wide audience, which means children. Nothing wrong with that.

As for the older folks, I’d note the brilliant use of the natural world’s own special effects — phosphorescence of jungle fungi and the physics of rain drops, as captured by time-lapse photography — that are used to help animate Oscar’s tale. It’s brilliantly done, and lyrically recalls that Disney masterpiece of a mind trip, Fantasia.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki