Are Chimps Just Like Us?

March 31st, 2012, by

A trailer appeared online recently for Disney’s upcoming nature docudrama Chimpanzee, which tells the story of an orphaned chimp, his adopted parent and the bond that forms between them. The trailer is obviously adorable. You’d have to be made of stone to not be moved by the two of them cuddling and playing together as the little ape grows up. In pretty much every way, they appear to behave a lot like people.


Being the unrelenting critic that I am (and some might substitute “cynic” for “critic”, which would not be unfair), my first thought after watching this was, “Well this looks more than a little manipulative.” Chimps are indeed a lot like humans, from their DNA down to the fact that they are the only other animals who make and use tools; but the fact remains that they are not humans and should not be viewed as such. Just ask the lady who had her face mauled by one a few years back. Or these folks.

It’s worth noting here that Chimpanzee will likely have a great effect on protecting chimps in the wild, both through a percentage of ticket sales going to charity and by spreading awareness about the species’ plight, both very good things. If Jane Goodall is involved, the project has about as much chimpanzee street cred as anyone could want. My concern, however, is that this movie and others like it, go too far in their anthropomorphism of animals and are ultimately dangerous to people’s understanding of them.

Around the time March of the Penguins came out, there was plenty of criticism about the way the film applied human emotions to its animal stars. As experts subsequently noted, it’s highly unlikely that penguins are capable of the range of emotions–or bare intelligence–given them by the filmmakers. Sure, it makes for a better narrative, but at the expense of truth in what is ostensibly a nature documentary, it hardly seems appropriate or responsible.

To be fair, chimps are a lot smarter than penguins, and judging an entire film by the contents of its trailer is a bit like judging a book by its cover. However, if I were a parent taking my kids to see this movie, I’d want to make sure they had the whole story, not just the bit that makes for a good Disney narrative. Or, more likely, I’d just take them to see Ice Age. There, at least, we could enjoy a good story without worrying too much about facts getting in the way.

Last modified: March 31, 2012 at 9:48 pm