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(2012) (Documentary) (G)

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Documentary: The life of a young chimpanzee in the rain forest is followed, including his interaction with others in his family and various dangers in his environment.
As narrated by Tim Allen, the documentary film follows the early life of a young chimpanzee, named Oscar, as he's raised by his mother, Isha, in an African rain forest. With their community led by alpha male Freddy, Oscar has a typical young chimp life until tragedy strikes. From that point on, he tries to survive however he can, all while dealing with various dangers in his environs, including those revolving around rival alpha male chimp Scar and his much larger community that wants to take over Freddy's territory.
OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Like many people, I love nature documentaries that teach and show me things I didn't know or had never seen before. And with documentarians now possessing smaller and higher quality cameras than ever before, they often deliver incredible, top-notch footage of our natural world and the various critters that inhabit it far away from most of our normal lives.

What can irritate me and others, however, is when someone -- be that the filmmakers themselves or the studio or cable channel that acquires the footage -- messes with and/or adds superfluous material to the proceedings. You know, something along the lines of an added score to "enhance" whatever we're seeing, editing that adds a fictional element to the "story," or a narrator who tries too hard to be funny, dramatic or cute.

Much of that ends up involving the anthropomorphizing of the animals. That's when the effort goes above and beyond the sheer naming of the non-domesticated animals to describing their mindset, thoughts, motivations and more. It's obviously done to liven up what could otherwise be viewed by some as a staid documentary, and often is done with such films that are aimed at young kids and families.

Disney has long done this, starting with their True-Life Adventures short subject documentary films back in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, up through their more recent Disneynature line of feature length films that have included "Earth," "Oceans" and "African Cats." The trend continues with their latest release, "Chimpanzee," a gorgeous looking film that manages to survive such anthropomorphization and the related narration by a "Toy Story" vocal actor that, quite frankly, sticks out like a sore thumb.

Granted, the attribution of human motivation, characteristics and behavior to chimps is somewhat understandable considering how similar they are to humans, and the fact that they are intelligent. Then again, it's highly unlikely they're thinking what the narrator is stating. For instance, at various points in the film the chimps are using "tools" (logs, rocks and such) to break open shelled nuts, retrieve insects to eat and such. And our narrator can't help but interject a brief bit of his old "Tool Time" persona into the proceedings.

Morgan Freeman and any other usually called-upon narrators must have been busy as none other than Tim Allen has been called upon to narrate the film. While he was the perfect voice for Buzz Lightyear in the "Toy Story" films, the vocal delivery of this former "Home Improvement" star and the words he's been given to speak simply don't work that well.

Yes, all of that humor and drama will probably play well with kids, and it's obviously good to have them exposed to something outside of their world and that doesn't involve social media or video games. But they're not the only audience for films like this, and Allen's material will likely wear fairly thin by the time the end credits start rolling near the end of the pic's 78-some minute runtime.

Speaking of the latter, that's when we see the standard behind the scenes footage of the documentary film crew, to whom kudos should definitely go based on the amazing footage they capture. And that includes the ability to "infiltrate" these chimp communities and be so close to these wild animals that, unlike their trained Hollywood brethren, probably have never seen a movie camera before. The close-ups they capture of the chimps -- especially that of the young "protagonist" -- are precious, and the "plot twist" that occurs in the film (and reportedly was not fabricated in any way) is quite remarkable and even moving.

All of which makes the narration all the more annoying. But I'm somewhat torn as I understand it will make the film more accessible to younger kids and families who might not otherwise see it if it had been presented sans any description and artificially inflated drama. And with some proceeds of the first week's box office take going toward Jane Goodall's program to help protect chimpanzees and their habitats, that's a big deal.

So, I'll give the film a recommendation based on that but especially the amazing footage, with hopes that future such nature documentaries tone down the added, artificial elements. "Chimpanzee" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 28, 2012 / Posted April 20, 2012

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