On the Werner Herzog Nature Scale—1 being adorable emperor penguins in love and 10 being “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”—no Disney documentary is ever going to score anywhere above 5 or 6, tops. These are movies made for children, so there’s always going to be some cuddly anthropomorphizing, like half-formed cubs rolling on the forest floor or clinging to a mother’s teat. The better recent examples, such as Earth and Oceans, combine astonishing nature footage with at least periodic attempts to show the effects of global warming, or the Darwinian struggle for survival. But as they dip closer to 1 on the Herzog Scale, like the new Chimpanzee does, the wild kingdom starts appropriating the stories of Bambi and The Lion King, and the motives assigned to these creatures become steeped in bullshit.
Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, who were also responsible for Earth, do pick up on a basic, compelling story through their gorgeous footage of a group of chimps in the Tai Forest in Ivory Coast. Here’s what’s real: A baby chimp, who the film calls Oscar, loses his mother in a battle with a rival clan and finds an unlikely adoptive father in “Freddie,” his group’s alpha-male leader. It’s a small miracle, because little Oscar, who doesn’t yet have the tools to take care of himself, would have died under normal circumstances. Here’s where the bullshit comes in: The rival clan, led by a glowering chimp dubbed “Scar”—a name he shares, not coincidentally, with The Lion King’s villain—is made to seem diabolical for his hostile encroaching on Freddie’s turf in search of food.
It not only seems likely that Freddie’s group would do likewise under similar circumstances—the film shows them pilfering food from Scar’s territory, though not by ambush—but Tim Allen’s narration refers to Scar and his group more than once as “thugs.” It isn’t easy to insult the intelligence of preschoolers, but Chimpanzee’s insistence on turning the two gangs into the Sharks and the Jets does the job long before Allen lapses into his Home Improvement grunting. Fothergill, Linfield, and their crew worked hard to collect mesmerizing images—an hour just of chimps cracking nuts would be sufficient entertainment—but the enforced narrative is so Disneyfied, the animals might as well be stuffed with fluff.