DVD Release Date: August 21, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: April 20, 2012
Rating: G
Genre: Documentary, Nature, Adventure
Run Time: 76 min.
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Actors (Narration): Tim Allen

Just in time for Earth Day, Disneynature swings into theaters with a touching, true tale from the rainforest of a little guy finding his way in the big world. The somewhat-obviously titled Chimpanzee tells the story of one group of chimpanzees, with a special focus on baby Oscar.

“Everyone loved Oscar from the moment they saw him,” says director Alastair Fothergill (African Cats, Earth). The adorable (for a chimpanzee) baby, with a face like a wizened old man, is hard to resist. His story is full of comedy, tragedy, and adventure; it even has a happy ending. What’s not to love?

Even before we meet young Oscar, the cinematography wins viewers’ hearts. Filmed on location in the Taï Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the view is glorious. (Watch the credits at the end for some behind-the-scenes footage showing how a few of those impressive shots were obtained.) Once we meet the chimpanzee family, the camera captures amazingly up close and personal views of these animals going about their daily business of finding food and fending off predators.

That means we witness young Oscar leave his mother’s arms for his first foray up a tree and follow his progress as he learns important skills like using rocks to crack open nuts. Compared to many other species, chimpanzees are fairly slow to mature; they rely on mom’s guidance and provision for some time. So when a rival gang of chimpanzees attacks and Oscar’s mom is among the (off-screen) casualties, things look bad for our little hero. (Sensitive young viewers may be affected by palpable abandonment issues as orphaned Oscar grows thinner, frailer, and lonelier.)

But just when it looks like Oscar is a goner, something of a miracle occurs. In a plot twist worthy of a Dickens novel, the little orphan finds a new protector in the gruffest of them all: Freddy, the alpha male of the group. (Remember: Chimpanzee is a documentary, so this storyline was written by God.) Belying his tough guy image, Freddy takes over Oscar’s care, giving him food, protection, and rides on his back.

“I have never seen a male like Freddy take up the role of a mother like that,” says Christophe Boesch, one of the world’s most renowned chimpanzee experts. “It was very moving for me to see Oscar’s longing for some sort of protection and closeness and the tenderness that Freddy showed him. It is very unusual.” Dr. Jane Goodall, an authority on chimpanzee behavior, agrees. “The adoption of an infant by an adult alpha male has never been filmed like this.” Given the way men are portrayed often in modern entertainment, it’s refreshing to see a strong male figure “man up” and do the right thing, even if the male in question is a chimpanzee.

The script, while garnering laughs from audience members of all ages, does prattle on a bit. Corny jokes and anthropomorphic “thought balloon” comments are common fare for this type of film, but a little less play-by-play would have allowed viewers to be more involved in the action. Still, narrator Tim Allen (Toy Story 3) does a fine job with the voice-over, delivering even the goofiest lines with aplomb and just the hint of a smile in his voice.