Chimpanzee: Oscar and Bambi

Oscar and Bambi: A Review of “Chimpanzee”

The newly released Disney documentary “Chimpanzee” is a marvel of contemporary film making.  As the “making of” footage at the end of the film reveals, the stunning shots, both wide angle and close ups, resulted from a combination of truly intrepid field work and the best in high tech cinematography.  The crisp detail of the scenes, the careful and minimal use of at least obvious special effects, and the intimate portrayals of chimpanzee social life pull the viewer in to a charming and emotional story.

The star of the show is Oscar, a baby chimp whose first months of life provide the narrative focus of the film, and the cast includes his mother Eesha, the troupe alpha male Freddie, an aged male simply called Grandpa, and other members of the troupe as helpful extras.  In the first half or so of the movie, we are treated to scenes of typical chimp life, including scenes of grooming, play, foraging and hunting, and perhaps most fascinating of all, tool use.  One forms an impression of chimpanzees as being very like humans, though considerably hairier than us.  Human experience of course also includes violence and aggression, and the filmmakers do not neglect to include chimpanzee violence.  Freddie’s family confronts the neighboring rival troupe more than once during the course of the film, and little Oscar loses his mother in one of the raids.  Touchingly, Freddie, the alpha male who ordinarily concerns himself with leadership and facing down competitors, adopts the little tyke and thus ensures Oscar’s survival.

It is all very lovely, but also, for the unwary or uninformed viewer, misleading.  Although strictly speaking nothing is “made up,” as we would expect and accept in fiction, the movie’s classification as a documentary does not mean we are getting an objective or complete picture of chimpanzee life.  As I explain in my review of “Project Nim,” documentaries are not pristine recordings of events but rather are the product of heavy selection and editing, not to mention of the director’s guiding thesis or premise.  They present a point of view, not an objective picture of their subjects.  In the case of “Chimpanzee,” the view point is expressed through heavy doses of anthropomorphism, beginning with giving the stars human names:  Oscar, Eesha [not sure of the spelling], Freddie, and Grandpa.  Chimpanzees, of course, don’t give themselves names, nor do they have human terms for kinship categories.  There is also the shying away from scenes of violence—we don’t see the colobus monkey being torn apart by the meat-hungry chimps, and we get the scene of the battle between the rival troupes only through a dense screen of jungle foliage.  As for the rival troupe, well, they are a bunch of burly apes, referred to in the narration as a “gang” and as “thugs.”  The only one of them given a name is their leader, whom the filmmakers call “Scar.”  How about that for a villain?  While the narration does tell us, very briefly, that the rival troupe invades Freddie’s territory in search of food, the thuggishness of the invaders is emphasized in order to provide the kind of drama that humans look for in a movie, or in a story of any kind.

Of the real lives of chimpanzees, quite other kinds of stories can be told.  From the viewpoint of Scar, for example, such a film might give him a different name, perhaps Joseph or Ronald (the latter as an oblique reference to Ronald Reagan, who before he was Commander in Chief starred in a film opposite a chimpanzee, “Bedtime for Bonzo”), just to humanize him a bit, and rather than a thug, he might be portrayed as the experienced but aging leader of a growing family of chimpanzees who must provide them with food or face being deposed.  He gathers a seemingly loyal but potentially treacherous group of males for a chancy sortie into the territory of Xerxes, the sovereign of the best nut tree groves in the jungle who is too greedy and power hungry to share the bounty peacefully.  Failing to secure the food source for his followers, Joseph or Ronald is fallen upon by his fellows, beaten badly, and redraws to the forest where he dies a lonely death.  And so on.

The real highlight of “Chimpanzee” is the wholly surprising and uncharacteristic adoption of Oscar by Freddie.  That is definitely unusual.  Such an orphaned infant is just as likely to be killed and eaten by the adults of his own troupe.  Indeed, even healthy infants of living mothers have been observed meeting such a fate.  Oscar is indeed a lucky little boy.  One truly wonders what kind of film we would be watching if his mother had not died or if Freddie had been more typical in his behavior.  Or if there had been much less narration and much more simply observing what was going on.

“Chimpanzee” is a beautiful film in the long tradition of Disney animal movies, both documentary and animated.  Their most common feature is the anthropomorphic narrative, and “Bambi” stands as the classic animated version of the genre.  In fact, watching “Chimpanzee,” with its idyllic beginning, its death of the mother at the hands of evil intruders, the adoption by an alpha male, one wonders if the plot of this “documentary” is an homage, either intentional or unconscious, to its classic predecessor.  Whatever the case, viewers should enjoy the movie but keep in mind that it is a human story.

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