Dir: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. US. 2012. 78mins


With Earth, Oceans, African Cats and now Chimpanzee, Disney, via specialty distribution arm DisneyNature, has carved out a nice nature documentary niche theatrically pegged to annual Earth Day celebrations. Its latest effort is a genuinely heartwarming and astonishingly intimate feature that engagingly locates the parallel drama, sadness, curiosity and uplift of the animal kingdom.

Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have a polished sense of how to shape an emotionally ripe narrative.

Grossing just over $21 million cumulatively, African Cats represented a curiously steep fall-off from its predecessors, especially internationally. With its extraordinarily photogenic subjects, however, Chimpanzee should fall more in line with the two previous DisneyNature releases, which did $109 and $83 million worldwide, with more than two-thirds of that business coming from overseas. Multi-generational shelf life will also give the movie sustained ancillary value.

Chimpanzee takes as its subject a wild group of the animals living in the Ivory Coast, and focuses in particular on a newborn chimp named Oscar, showing him playing with his fellow primates and also trying to learn the ins and outs of jungle life. When separated from his mother Isha, Oscar’s tenuous grasp of the already complex forest territory that is his homeland is further imperiled.

Shot over the course of four years, a 10-hour car ride and two more hours of hiking into the woods from the nearest airport, Chimpanzee is full of amazing footage. Scenes of the chimpanzees plotting out an attack on tree-dwelling monkeys (they aren’t exclusively herbivores, after all), is fascinating, but the most arresting sequences come by way of the group’s creation and use of tools to extract ants from an underground colony or smash open nuts. These behaviors, of course, mirror humankind traits so closely that they — and especially the wordless observance, replication and refinement by young Oscar — unlock something deep and profound within a viewer’s heart.

Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, collaborators on Earth and other projects, are at the top of their game as nature documentarians, and have a polished sense of how to shape an emotionally ripe narrative. While it admittedly ladles on the antagonism a bit thick (to underscore everything for younger audiences, the leader of a rival tribe is named Scar), the main thrust of the narrative, charting Oscar’s development, works well.

The movie’s sole big disappointment again relates to its dearth of biological details. While it communicates the number of chimps in Oscar’s group and leader Freddy’s age (about 50 years old), much more factual information could have been easily slotted in, giving Chimpanzee additional educational heft and playing to the head as well as the heart.

Cinematographer Martyn Colbeck oversees a rapturous visual package. There is slow-motion camerawork for some scene-setting interstitials — rainfall battering leaves and mushrooms, for instance — plus the requisite but no less breathtaking rolodex of aerial and time lapse footage. Even for children who’ve experienced nature chiefly via high-digital rendering on their portable electronic devices, this movie will provide something new and stirring.

While he apes a bit (pun embraced more than intended), Tim Allen’s amiable voiceover work is significantly more appropriate than the grating, dramatically exaggerate tones Samuel L. Jackson appropriated for African Cats, also co-directed by Fothergill.

Composer Nicholas Hooper’s music is appropriately whimsical, tender and ominous in respective spots, without being overwhelming in depressing its emotional keys.

Following a cautionary message about the dwindling natural populations of chimpanzees, the film’s closing credits also spotlight interesting behind-the-scenes footage showcasing some of the extreme weather and other the significant hurdles the human crew faced in capturing their footage.

Production companies: Blacklight Films, Jane Goodall Institute

Domestic distribution: DisneyNature

Producers: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Alix Tidmarsh

Executive producer: Don Hahn

Screenplay: Alastair Fothergill & Mark Linfield & Don Hahn

Cinematography and principal photography (Ivory Coast): Martyn Colbeck

Principal photography (Uganda): Bill Wallauer

Aerial photography: Michael Kelem

Editor: Andy Netley

Music: Nicholas Hooper

Website: www.Disney.com/Chimpanzee

Narrator: Tim Allen