A personal bias, admitted here: I think just about any movie could stand to include a monkey, chimp, ape, gorilla or orangutan in its cast. The least interesting moment involving Clint Eastwood palling around with Clyde in Any Which Way but Loose is more compelling than anything that happened in J. Edgar. My favorite live-action Disney movie: Monkeys Go Home! My favorite vintage Saturday morning program: Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. My favorite childhood blockbuster franchise and spin-off nighttime TV show: The Planet of the Apes. Most underrated primate-meets-Faye-Dunaway-meets-Glenn-Shadix film of the 1990s: Dunston Checks In. Put a monkey in it and I'm happy. And their babies? Even better. The power of cute things is unstoppable.
Disney now has what amounts to a loosely connected almost-franchise consisting of annual nature documentaries released each spring: Earth, Oceans and the necessarily more narrowly focused African Cats. Chimpanzee is the latest and some corporate patterns are emerging. First, endless amounts of incredible wildlife footage is shot, then it's constructed into a narrative that echoes the plot highlights of old-school Disney animation. Even more desirable an outcome is the one where they can make it seem like The Lion King is now a you-are-there reality series.
There's a checklist, too: the love of the family or clan, the death of a parent, the rescue or redemption of the surviving child-hero, the villain who must be escaped or killed, the comic relief antics. And because the subjects don't object out loud, it's also okay to give them adorable names, project human emotions and motivations onto them, and pretend there's any such thing as a third act resolution in the lives of wild chimps.
And this one, luckily for the filmmakers, found itself easily shaped into a parable about single-parent adoption when the baby chimp star lost his mother and was, surprisingly enough, cared for by the group's alpha male. At least we're told this is surprising; you'd never know it just from watching the animals go about their business. Meanwhile, narrator Tim Allen delivers the play-by-play, shaping the story and sometimes putting dialogue into chimp mouths. When it's time to break open hard-shelled nuts with giant rock, he's got jokes and an occasional Home Improvement grunt. When Mama Chimp disappears he's hushed and lower-register as Baby Chimp wanders around, his mournful face framed by disinterested, and occasionally hostile, adult females tending to their own offspring. And when the chimps capture monkeys and turn them into an out-of-camera-range lunch, Allen picks an appropriately facts-is-facts tone. If that sounds shocking, that's because it is. But at least the action doesn't descend into the kind of tense predator drama that was African Cats. You want to terrify your child? Let them watch that one.
In the end, even in the face of boring structural conformity, cuteness wins. The insanely magnetic charms of baby chimps trump all -- or at least most -- complaints. But as long as anthropomorphism is the dominant paradigm, let's just take it to its most entertaining conclusion, put them all in little outfits and teach them to sing "I Wanna Be Like You."