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Alpha Male Makes a Comeback in Chimpanzee

Alpha Male Makes a Comeback in <i>Chimpanzee</i>

Men behaving badly. It’s par for the course in many of today’s top-grossing films hitting the big screen (Hall Pass, The Hangover 1 and 2).

But surprisingly, Disneynature’s Chimpanzee is poised to swing popular cinema in the opposite direction this weekend. In the newest nature film to hit theaters, a different kind of role model is “manning up,” taking responsibility and leading the pack in a story only a Creator could have written.

He’s Freddy, the alpha male chimpanzee.

We first meet through the narration of Tim Allen (TV’s Last Man Standing, Toy Story 3), who introduces us to this nearly 50-year-old leader of a “family” which includes 35 chimpanzees living deep in The Taï Forest of Africa’s Ivory Coast. The fog is thick and the vegetation is lush in this area of the world; it’s also a jungle region the filmmakers say feels like “jogging in a sauna.”

But even though chimpanzees are known to be challenging, wary of humans and difficult to observe in the wild, the Chimpanzee directors forged ahead anyway to capture everyday life as Freddy and his family know it. And right from the start, it was nothing short of grueling.

Welcome to the Jungle

“To get there,” co-director Alastair Fothergill (African CatsEarth) remembers of the location, “you begin by driving 10 hours from the nearest city on what’s still a tarmac road. Then you do another four hours on a dirt road that is sometimes impassable. And, if you make it that far, there’s an hour or more of walking along a very narrow path into the forest.”

But discomfort and challenges are standard issue when it comes to making a documentary in the wild.

Still, co-director Mark Linfield (Earth) says the Chimpanzee shoot was not without some really “dark periods,” and at times felt like it might never end—let alone end up on the big screen.

“It was a very difficult film,” Linfield reveals of the experience capturing the everyday happenings and habitat of chimpanzees on camera. “We had a period where chimpanzees got ill, where they caught a common cold from one of the [film crew] assistants.

“There was also a period when the Ivory Coast plunged into a civil war really. And we had to evacuate. At that time we thought we’d never get back in, and we certainly didn’t have enough [footage] for a movie at that point.”

But probably the darkest period for Linfield and the crew was the day that Isha died.

As the mother of the film’s youngest chimp Oscar, who is front and center in the film’s trailer and whose early life journey the entire documentary revolves around, Isha was still nursing her child and teaching him how to eat and live in the forest when she was injured during a raid by a rival chimpanzee gang.

“We thought we were about to lose our star,” explains Linfield, who knew Oscar wouldn’t survive very long without a mother figure after Isha's demise. The future wasn’t looking too bright for the film’s littlest star, and in the back of their minds filmmakers wondered if they’d have to call Disney and abruptly end the arduous shoot.

But the plucky, determined chimp wasn’t one to give up that quickly, as moviegoers observe. Oscar is quite the charmer, but when he tries making connection with the other females in search of a new mother in his family, he is continually rejected. And it’s not just a social issue; the chimp is losing weight and because he’s still learning and growing, he needs help in fending for himself and gathering food. If he doesn’t find someone to take him under a protective wing very soon, he won’t survive.

A Father Figure

What happens next is something that rarely happens in the wild and is said to have never before been captured on film. Oscar has one more chimpanzee left to approach in his family. He’s big. He’s unlikely. And he’s . . . Freddy.

“Oscar approached Freddy with this sort of sad attitude of ‘Nobody else is going to look after me, how about you?” Fothergill says. “And Freddy’s response was just the most incredible, amazing, unpredictable thing I have ever seen.”

Alpha males like Freddy are not known to take care of young chimpanzees. He’s reached the top, and he’s got a rival chimpanzee gang to protect his family against. But surprisingly, as the miraculous story plays out, Freddy shifts his primate priorities and decides to “adopt” Oscar and provide for him as Isha would have done.

That means the highest ranking male is now taking care of the lowest.

Linfield says he and the rest of the film crew were quite surprised with the rare turn of events. But they can’t take any credit for the amazing storyline that unfolds.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting is that people are having difficulty getting their heads around why Freddy did it,” he shares. “[Freddy] actually had quite a bit to lose as the alpha male, because when you’re alpha in a chimpanzee group there’s a lot of bravado and maintaining face and making sure the rest of the group knows that you’re the strongest.”

Laying these hierarchical issues to the side, Freddy allows Oscar to climb on him and ride on his back (as Isha did). He also gives Oscar first pick of every nut he cracks open when foraging for food in the forest, just as a mother would have done. And he spends time carefully grooming Oscar in between meals; it’s an outward sign of bonding and personal investment.

“It was just amazing and very touching to see this big, normally gruff male pour his love and devotion into caring for Oscar,” Linfield adds.

The filmmaker confirms that through genetic testing the results show that Freddy is not the father of Oscar, so blood cannot be a factor when it comes to explaining the alpha male’s behavior.

And in trying to come to a conclusion for those viewers who are puzzled to see a chimpanzee act so out of character, Linfield can only point to humans.

“I think the best answer you can give is . . . well, why do humans adopt? There are people who adopt when they have children at home already. But I think if you can answer that question, you can probably answer the question of why Freddy did what he did. And we’re really not so entirely different. We have a lot of the same motivations and emotions it would seem.”

Animals Gone Wild

Chimpanzee portrays similar acts of love and heroism that have been proven to be popular with audiences in other recent family-friendly nature films as well, such as last year’s African Cats (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) and 2009’s Earth (narrated by James Earl Jones).

But besides a fascination with animals in the wild, what’s the underlying draw? Linfield credits increasing environmental awareness in addition to the ongoing popularity of the big-screen experience.

“Cinema is a fantastic place to see a good nature film,” he explains. “It’s such a great place to have an immersion experience. If you’ve got an enormous image which is almost like you were there, and you’ve got sound all around you, if it’s done well it’s like being transported to a place in a way that you just don’t get in your living room.”

At its end, Chimpanzee’s journey to the Ivory Coast yields more than an impressive “postcard” of chimps swinging from jungle vines or a study in how best to crack open nuts. It offers moviegoers young and old some very interesting and poignant food for thought: not all males are behaving badly everywhere.

And in Freddy’s case, he's leading the pack.

Disneynature’s Chimpanzee is rated G and releases wide in theaters on Friday, April 20, 2012. For more information, please visit

For every moviegoer who sees
Chimpanzee during the film’s opening week (April 20-26, 2012), Disneynature will make a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.

Photos courtesy of Disneynature.