Doc Talk: 'Chimpanzee' and the Debates on Nature Films

Doc Talk: 'Chimpanzee' and the Debates on Nature Films

Apr 18, 2012

“Whenever there's a horse in a movie, I think, ‘This is a documentary about a horse that's in a movie and doesn't know it.’”

That quote comes from Jay Cheel, a documentarian (Beauty Day) who also runs The Documentary Blog. He was tweeting back at me in response to a question about transparency, but this context doesn’t matter. By itself it, the statement raises a question that I’ve thought about many times in the past with animals. For a specific comparison, is there much that’s different between the lead horse in War Horse and the featured horses in the documentary Buck?

Actually, maybe Buck isn’t a good example since it’s mostly about training, which is what’s done for animal “acting.” I’m not familiar with any great docs on wild horses, but I guess a domestic animal isn’t the best to start with when thinking about nature films. Still, there is one famous motion picture I’ve considered with this week’s topic, and so I ask: is Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion still a proper animal study if it was planned and set up?

The answer is yes, because there is no difference between how a horse normally trots and how that original movie star trotted for the camera. But in the 135 years since that study was done, there’s been a strong debate about what constitutes authenticity with animal films. Of course I bring up the discussion because there’s a new Disneynature release opening this weekend, and as usual the folks at the Mouse House tread a fine line between documentary and fiction with Chimpanzee.

While it doesn’t force plot and anthropomorphize its cast of animals as much as last year’s African Cats -- which seemed conscious of how ridiculous it got with narrativizing nature by including such a jokey credit sequence (warthogs did hair and makeup; giraffes were crane operators, etc.) -- Chimpanzee is certainly guilty of scripting the wild. But there doesn’t appear to be much in the film, visually, that was staged or otherwise demonstrating of behavior and actions that didn’t or wouldn’t have happened without the camera crew present.

Given its controversial history with forcing situations in such classic, Oscar-winning nature films as The Living Desert, I do believe Disney is now more intent on avoiding such direct manipulations of wildlife. But part of this belief had stemmed from Disneynature’s employment of directors who come out of and are still associated with acclaimed David Attenborough programs like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet. Well, last December we learned that part of Frozen Planet was staged in a zoo with fake snow.

Arguing over what’s ethical and what’s true is a growing activity for filmmakers and critics with so much nature programming on television, and Chris Palmer’s industry-exposing book Shooting in the Wild, published two years ago, added to the fire. For some, as long as it’s actually animals we’re seeing (as opposed to say, Andy Serkis and CGI), it’s real. For others, animal cruelty, such as when lemmings were thrown to their deaths for a scene in Disney’s White Wilderness, is the big concern. Many people are even against the villainization of some animals, like sharks.

In the case of Chimpanzee, it eases the mind that Jane Goodall is attached as supporter of and spokesperson for the film. If she approves, they must have done right by the chimps. The film also features an end-credits bit with the filmmakers discussing the factuality of an unbelievably rare plot point. I suspect that some shots were achieved with either guidance or provocation, because this isn’t a hand-held verite-style production and there were tripods and set ups and such clearly arranged.

Otherwise, Chimpanzee’s only visual manipulation is probably in the framing of a narrative out of a story that was truly already there. And this would be largely acceptable if it weren’t for the goofy, overbearing narration that goes along with the plotting. Sure, chimps are easily anthropomorphized because they’re already like humans in many ways. In the film they’re given names like Oscar, Freddie and Scar (obviously he’s the bad guy) and sometimes imagined-up dialogue (“guys, I’m still sleeping!”), as well as old-fashioned narrator-to-character moments (“good job, Oscar!”), which like the rest of the voice-over are provided by Tim Allen (and yes, he does his signature grunt).

Disneynature is, without a doubt, aimed at children, but does a film like Chimpanzee have to be so much like a cartoon? Couldn’t we simply watch the animals do their thing with some minor narration used sparingly where exposition is properly necessary? Not as fun, or funny, I suppose, but then why even go through the trouble of making a nature film if you’re just going to deliver something that could have been an animated feature? Because it’s the illusion of reality and the level of fact that makes it interesting.

The irony (and maybe hypocrisy) with my problems with overly narrativized nature films like this is that I’m the biggest defender of narrative manipulation in human-based documentaries. I’m fine with much of the misleading editing, character prodding and other direction involved in nonfiction films that are primarily interested in the storytelling and “ecstatic truth” of real life situations more than certain, exact, definite truthfulness. And the funny thing is, as Cheel's tweet reminds me, animal characters probably aren’t even conscious of, let alone bothered by, being exploited for a narrative. Many humans are.

It’s just hard to totally classify Chimpanzee as a documentary with all the fictionalized characterization and emotionality. A controversially well-planned film like Winged Migration, for which birds were bred and trained to fly alongside special camera gliders, is okay. Putting two scorpions in a studio with a painted backdrop to present us with how they mate, as was reportedly done once by Attenborough, is ... fine. Even some embellishment is acceptable. But thanks to Allen, who was probably only hired because chimps are tool-using animals (*grunt grunt grunt*), and who makes Morgan Freeman’s March of the Penguins voiceover seem stiff, academic and bound by the facts, I do think it’s time to retire the narrativizing narrator.


In spite of all I wrote above, this week’s theatrical recommendation is ... Chimpanzee! All you have to do is bring your ipod and your own choice of soundtrack, just so long as it’s long enough to block out Tim Allen’s excruciating voice-over and Nicholas Hooper’s emotion-triggering score (and probably some faked sound effects). Everything visual about the film is stunning, from the swooping jungle shots to the actual animal activity, including the footage of ants, frogs, monkeys, spiders and more. Mostly you need to see the time-lapse photography of mushrooms and other fungi, isolated sequences strewn about with little relevance aside from being a look at the chimps’ habitat. These bits are beautifully strange and somewhat psychedelic (I don’t want to encourage drug use, but what an appropriate thing to watch while consuming mushrooms, if that’s your thing).

Of course the chimps themselves are the main draw, and I don’t think it’s that hard to follow the story without the narration. The editing does a good enough job of plotting the story. And as a bonus, if you go see the movie in the first week, part of your money goes towards Jane Goodall’s chimp charity, and both she and they deserve it. The film opens nationwide Friday.


This week’s DVD pick is Yoav Potash’s Crime After Crime, a documentary that’s recommended for quite different reasons than Chimpanzee. As I wrote in my review of the film, it’s “more important than dramatic, more cause-minded than storyteller … a worthwhile legal doc for those more concerned with the legal process and its faults than a riveting narrative.” While I tend to be more interested in story with nonfiction films, the issue here is one I can get behind, at least for discussion fodder. Following attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa as they defend Debbie Peagler, the doc looks at California’s law allowing for murder cases to be reopened if the convicted party was a victim of domestic abuse.

I don’t totally love Crime After Crime. I am somewhat frustrated that Safran and Costa are the film’s main protagonists (if not main subject) and primary source of exposition, even with the backstory of Peagler. Others may take issue with the usual villainizing of the prosecuting D.A., who in this film is implied as being guilty of the crime in the title, injustice. But it’s a good issue doc, one that additionally tackles the problems of the female prison population, hazardous prison conditions and, of course, domestic abuse. The DVD will be released next Tuesday, April 24.

I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

Categories: Documentary, Features
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