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Documentary | The only agenda in this documentary is to craft a compelling narrative

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

Chimpanzee is the most simple form of nature documentary: one without any agenda but to craft a compelling narrative.

Following a formula that Disney has branded Disneynature, the family-friendly film company pieced together some awesome footage from West Africa, filmed over the course of four years, and used narration and effects such as slow motion and ultra close-ups to set the tone of a story arc.

The narrative follows Oscar, a baby chimp carefully nurtured by his mother and "homeschooled" by an "extended family" of 35 chimpanzees. There is no gore in the movie (the film is rated G), no signs of the outside world-no science lessons, either-and barely a hint of innocence lost when Oscar becomes an orphan.

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Much of the footage in the film is so crisp it could be fake, and at times it is almost too much like a Disney fairytale. The narrative is only partially manufactured-Oscar really was adopted by his group's male leader after his mother's death, according to the filmmakers-but the rivalry between two chimpanzee "gangs" follows a confusing timeline and lacks tension, especially when the narrator concludes at the climax that "teamwork has beaten brute force."

Nature itself can be dangerous, but the film skirts the edges of that type of drama in a clear attempt to avoid scaring the younger members of the audience. Suspenseful music, though, may scare some children.

At less than 90 minutes, the movie still struggles to hold attention. Adults will likely feel impatient after 20 minutes, since watching is like experiencing a sneezing panda video that goes on too long. Tim Allen's friendly narration is an attempt both to turn the apes into distinct characters and to make them relatable, like the pet you pretend can talk back.

There are enough extended montages of Oscar hanging upside down or looking confused to satisfy any chimp lover, but those old enough to understand what is going on will likely be looking for more insight on this jungle world than the film's detailed explanation of group grooming.


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