"Chimpanzee," the new documentary about a troop of chimps deep in the jungles of the Ivory Coast, represents an occasionally uneasy marriage between two of the great cultural forces in their respective fields. Shooting and directing "Chimpanzee" are a couple of old pros who in the past decade helped to re-invent the nature documentary: Alastair Fothergill ("African Cats," "Earth," the "Planet Earth" series) and Mark Linfield ("Earth," production and writing on the mini-series "Frozen Planet").
Distributing "Chimpanzee" is Disneynature, the new branch of Disney that can afford to sink tens of millions of dollars into the likes of "Earth" and "Oceans" but which also brings a different sensibility than, say, the BBC. Which is how Tim Allen — recognizable even in voiceover because of the "Toy Story" movies — winds up narrating the lives of a couple rival bands of chimpanzees, often with the sort of projected first-person lines usually reserved for syrupy motivational posters or a "Look Who's Talking" sequel. It may make 6-year-olds giggle, but you won't help but feel your ape movie has been dumbed down.
The script obscures the strong points of the film, namely, incredible access (produced in part by the Jane Goodall Institute, "Chimpanzee" had some 700 shooting days in the field), beautiful cinematography and a genuinely astonishing story in the wild. A chimp tot we know as Oscar (hint, hint, Academy) grows up in the best and worst of chimpanzee times. His troop, headed by an alpha male called Freddy, has the run of a fantastic nut grove where they can feed. There's a nice fig tree on a ridge, as well, but it's being eyed by a rival band of chimps that keeps pushing further into the territory controlled by our hero chimps. Just so we keep these groups straight, the leader of the interlopers is named Scar — yes, just like the "Lion King" villain. That's Disney's fault. Not Disney's fault is an event that puts Oscar in the unhappy company of such animated animal characters as Nemo, Simba and Bambi. It's a rough jungle out there, and when Oscar needs help, he doesn't always get it.
What emerges is a surprisingly good story with a gratifying narrative arc, and Allen-voiced wisecracks aside, "Chimpanzee" is marvelously instructive on what it's like to be an ape in the woods. You crack nuts. You hike miles through the forest to get to fruit trees. You nap at midday. At night, you fold branches into a bough to sleep in, high above the leopards on the forest floor. If you spot a group of small monkeys in the treetops, you gather your friends to set a trap for them and then lunch on raw monkey meat. You groom. You poke sticks into ant colonies to slurp them off. You reach into hollow trees to yank out honeycomb by the handful. You twirl on branches. You wash and munch fruits in rivers. You mug for the camera. The usual.
Some of the most memorable moments of "Chimpanzee" are the interludes between scenes, when that "Planet Earth" slo-mo and time-lapse-camera geekery is allowed to bloom. Slime mold slurks along logs at super-speed; raindrops pummel puffball mushrooms, ejecting poofs of spores with every blow; ants march in a high-speed blur.
The visuals are smashing, and they carry enough of Oscar's story that you wonder how much the voice-over truly adds. A director's cut wouldn't be hard to imagine: the same edit, but with just one-third of the script. The jungle tells its own story, and "Chimpanzee" triumphs when it shuts up and lets us listen.