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Oscar tries to crack nuts open with a wooden log in “Chimpanzee,” which opens today.
Movie review

Hybrid nature story has hero to root for


“Chimpanzee,” the follow-up feature to Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s “Earth,” is, like that 2007 Disney-produced documentary, neither straight reportage nor wholly made-up storytelling. Rather, it is a hybrid form of nature film: one part “Wild Kingdom” and one part wacky-talking-animal tale.

Talking animals?

Well, yes, sort of. As narrated by Tim Allen – who rose to prominence as a stand-up comic with shtick that involved grunting like an ape – the chimps at the center of “Chimpanzee” appear to think out loud as they forage for food, groom and play with each other and sleep in the Ivory Coast. Throughout the film, which revolves around the adventures of an adorable baby chimp that the filmmakers have nicknamed Oscar, Allen doesn’t just describe the action, but also gives voice to Oscar’s innermost thoughts. In essence, the movie anthropomorphizes a wild animal that is already all too often viewed as nothing more than a furry little person.

It isn’t the worst thing in the world. And the movie’s heart is absolutely in the right place. Disney is donating some proceeds to chimpanzee conservation efforts. But one wonders whether more than a few viewers won’t want to take home a baby chimp after seeing the film.

I certainly did.

Yes, little Oscar is just that cute. (Could his name be a form of wishful thinking?) The movie follows our hero through such dramatic life changes that you might want to adopt him, too.

Be warned: Although rated G, “Chimpanzee” features scenes of rival chimpanzee packs attacking each other, and of chimpanzees hunting – and, it is suggested, eating – monkeys. Some sequences are, at times, intense and frightening, especially for younger viewers. And what happens to Oscar in the course of the narrative is genuinely, if only momentarily, sad.

As they did with “Earth” – which focused on the struggles of three animal families: whales, polar bears and elephants – Fothergill and Linfield begin by zeroing in on Oscar and his mother, Isha, shaping their story around them and using Allen’s voice-over to keep the mood antic and light.

But nature is messy, and “Chimpanzee” doesn’t shrink from that, to its credit. Fothergill and Linfield at least exercise discretion when their cameras capture disturbing turns of event. But in the end they don’t sugarcoat the fact that life is hard for a chimpanzee, even one who’s starring in his own Hollywood movie.