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Disneynature's Chimpanzee Blu-ray + DVD Review

Disneynature's Chimpanzee (2012) movie poster Chimpanzee

Theatrical Release Date: April 22, 2012 / Running Time: 78 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield / Writers: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield (concept & screenplay); Don Hahn (screenplay) / Producers: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Alix Tidmarsh

Narrator: Tim Allen

Tagline: For Oscar, every day is an adventure.

Buy Chimpanzee from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD DVD + Blu-ray in DVD Case Instant Video

There are a few constants to the movie industry's theatrical release calendar. You'll usually find at least one or more romance film opening shortly before Valentine's Day and some horror movies within a few weeks of Halloween. Big tentpoles gravitate to the Fourth of July and Christmas Day. In recent years, Warner Bros. Pictures has used the third week of July to debut one of its biggest films of the year.
And, since 2009, Earth Day has belonged to the Walt Disney Company, who has used that April occasion to release each of its first four Disneynature documentaries. The tradition might be coming to a close; the studio has yet to schedule or even announce either a title or a subject for Earth Day 2013. If so, the line of feature films given wide release in standard theaters has ended on a high note with this year's Chimpanzee.

The introduction of the Disneynature banner was a bit odd. The company founded the Paris-based subsidiary on Earth Day Eve 2008, not long after announcing they were cutting their annual theatrical output in half. There was little mystery to the studio's game plan; new CEO Robert Iger believed in franchising and saw value to making big, branded movies with endless earnings potentials. Clearly, Disneynature did not fit this model, based on documentaries' modest commercial power historically. But Disney believed with enough marketing muscle, there could be an audience for strongly-produced theatrically released nature documentaries, even with all the alternative options on television and home video. There was also a tradition to this kind of film, with Walt having pioneered the format in his highly decorated True-Life Adventures shorts and features of the 1950s.

Disneynature's strategy seemed to pay off in the reasonably and globally strong box office numbers of 2009's banner-launching Earth. Returns diminished, however, on Oceans (2009) and African Cats (2010), the latter grossing just $15 million domestically and under $6 million in foreign markets. Given a slightly wider release (1,563 theaters, as opposed to the 1,200 claimed by its two predecessors), Chimpanzee provided a franchise rebound, taking in $29 million in its practically North American-only release. That places it third among all non-IMAX nature documentaries, narrowly trailing Earth (which played in 250 more theaters) and more widely falling short of March of the Penguins (which expanded to an all-time record 2,500 theaters).

The orphaned young Oscar and the jaded, old Freddy become an unlikely family in Disneynature's "Chimpanzee."

You can come up with a number of theories to explain why Chimpanzee performed considerably better than the two previous Disneynature releases. I'd like to think it has something to do with the movie, which is probably Disneynature's best yet. Earth and Oceans took a survey approach, depicting life for a wide variety of animals on land and in sea. Earth was itself adapted from the BBC's acclaimed and popular series "Planet Earth" and so it stood to reason that it too would give us a few minutes on one subject and move on. African Cats went a different direction, focusing on one species and dramatizing its nature footage into a standard narrative. Chimpanzee follows in African Cats' footsteps and in doing so it is sure to rub some nature film buffs the wrong way.

Chimpanzee does as much telling as it does showing, courtesy of active running narration from Tim Allen. Allen's famous persona and his longstanding relationship with Disney made him an obvious choice for narrator duties based on the footage gathered here. The actor's personality comes through in ways that the on-camera work of previous narrators James Earl Jones, Pierce Brosnan, and Samuel L. Jackson largely did not. Being one of Tim Allen's bigger fans (with the disclaimer that I'm not crazy about all his work and could only withstand a single episode of "Last Man Standing"), I didn't mind when he let out one of his signature grunts or used his comedy sensibilities to describe gender dynamics and power tool usage (material undoubtedly tailored to "The Toolman"). I know that others are much less crazy about Allen's shtick and some genre-devoted viewers of this film will wish he would shut up and let the powerful imagery speak for itself.

The photography of Disneynature productions has been nothing less than stellar, but here it is supplemented by a prominent and compelling narrative. The film centers on a nut grove, over which two rival packs of chimpanzees have fought for control. Our sympathies lie with the fertile land's current reigners, a family that includes an adorable itty-bitty baby chimp named Oscar. A charismatic baby chimp almost seems like too easy a protagonist for a G-rated nature documentary. Fortunately, the film aspires to more than just cute moments.

Chimpanzees are apparently not all that crazy about the rain. The chimps' scenic natural African habitat offers something like fifty shades of green.

We see Oscar try to get the hang of cracking nuts, a skill that takes chimpanzees a long time to master. The infant struggles with logs until finally making his 2001: A Space Odyssey-type discovery that rocks are more effective. I'm never sure how much of nature documentaries' scenes are common knowledge, but I found a number of the episodes presented here to be revelatory.
For instance, the fact that chimpanzees hunt and eat monkeys? That sort of makes sense, I guess, but it's news to me. (Fear not for your children; the kill itself is unseen and the subsequent eating is obscure and not likely to upset.)

Other everyday occurrences also arrest when captured up close and cinematically by the Disneynature crew. The chimps eat fruit in a less than appetizing fashion. They use a stick to lure ants but minimize bites. They nap on the ground in the day, but climb up the trees at night to avoid leopards. These chimps could do anything and it would seem fascinating at the right angles.

Life for Oscar takes a sad turn when his mother Isha disappears and is confirmed to have died. The young chimp isn't well-equipped to fend for himself. He starts losing weight and other families won't let him join them. Fortunately, there is a touching solution from an unlikely source. I hope that the story really occurred as it is shown. With nature documentaries, you can never be sure when footage is being edited to fit a compelling mold.

Taken at face value, Chimpanzee is compelling, moving, and life-affirming. Those opposed to narration and personification might not think much of the film. But I enjoyed it, my preference for focused, narrative-based nature documentaries reflecting my larger cinematic tastes.

Like African Cats, Chimpanzee is released exclusively as a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, a two-disc set available this week in both Blu-ray and DVD packaging.

Watch a clip from "On Location: The Making of Chimpanzee":

Disneynature's Chimpanzee: Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA Theatrical Mix (English), 5.1 DTS Home Theater Mix (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in DVD packaging ($39.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Of course, Chimpanzee looks fantastic on Blu-ray Disc. The African jungles produce eye-popping visuals that are entirely unhindered. From scampering packs of ants to the occasional time-lapse effect, the 1.78:1 presentation's sharp, vibrant images are sure to make you appreciate your television. The film's soundtrack is offered in five different ways. The most standard and interesting of those are your two 5.1 DTS English tracks, the default master audio preserving the original theatrical mix and the secondary one apparently remixed for home theaters. The latter sounded louder, but I'll leave it up to you to determine if there's more to it than that. The DTS-HD master audio track was extremely potent, putting you inside the jungle with atmospheric noises coming from all different directions. As much as I liked the movie as is (and appreciate Tim Allen), it would be nice if there was a way to see the movie with no narration at all. The other audio options are a 2.0 Descriptive Video Service track (do the blind not deserve 5.1-channel surround sound?!) and French and Spanish dubs (the latter hopefully performed like Buzz Lightyear's Spanish mode).

Field researcher Lydia tries cracking a nut with a rock, just like the chimps do. Bees will simply not leave the filmmakers alone in one unbearable African location.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The light all-HD extras slate begins and practically ends with "On Location: The Making of Chimpanzee" (38:54), a collection of seven short featurettes. They follow filmmakers around as they sweat, brave the jungle, wait and hope to snag some usable footage. It looks like an exhausting, exhilarating, and thankless existence. The cinematographers also lend their thoughts to the sights they capture, try their hands at cracking nuts, film aggressive chimps, and document the various creatures that invade their jungle home of three years (and their bodies!). One of the best segments finds them getting attacked by endless swarms of bees (in a discretion-encouraging short), and losing their minds. Nature documentaries lend themselves to behind-the-scenes pieces, and Chimpanzee is no exception.

"See Chimpanzee, Save Chimpanzees" (3:13) gathers thoughts from the filmmakers and from Jane Goodall about Disney's efforts to help save chimpanzees.

One simply does not make a documentary about chimps without getting UN Messenger of Peace Dr. Jane Goodall to endorse it. The McClain Sisters sing in their music video for "Rise", their longest of three bonus feature appearances.

A music video for the end credits theme "Rise" (4:18) has the McClain Sisters singing passionately around a piano with full-sized clips from the film also featuring. "Behind the Scenes of 'Rise'" (1:17) briefly delves into the making of the music video with the sisters discussing Chimpanzee and the video's design.

"Disney's Conservation Legacy" (1:48) is a PR short touting how Disney cares for this planet. It oddly resembles something out of a dystopian sci-fi film.
The McClain Sisters resurface for "Disney's Friends for Change" (0:47), a short call to environmentalism.

The DVD is a slap in the face for the market majority that still happily makes their purchases in standard definition. The only extras included on that are "See Chimpanzee, Save Chimpanzee", "Disney's Conservation Legacy", and "Disney's Friends for Change." With the movie just 78 minutes long, there ought to have been room for most, if not all, of the "On Location" shorts to be included there as well. To add insult to injury, the DVD isn't filled anywhere near capacity.

The discs open with a Disney Kids and Nature Celebration Conservation Program promo and a trailer for Finding Nemo's upcoming 3D theatrical release. The Sneak Peeks listing repeats those and adds ads for Disney Movie Rewards, "Austin & Ally", Disney Parks, Cinderella: Diamond Edition, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3, Secret of the Wings, and Planes.

The piano-scored menu plays clips with thin nature swatches serving as borders.

My review copy is the one packaged like a Blu-ray. Topped by an embossed, holographic slipcover, the blue keepcase includes a booklet of chimpanzee facts and animal-related ads and a Disney Movie Rewards booklet.

Awww....look at the itty-bitty chimpanzee baby.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While some viewers will be put off by the near-constant narration or the efforts to turn this into a standard narrative drama, I greatly enjoyed Chimpanzee for its first-rate footage and fascinating subject matter. Though the Blu-ray's extras lean heavily on promotional material and the DVD's do entirely, the strong movie and sterling presentation are enough to warrant a look.

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Blu-ray + DVD / DVD + Blu-ray in DVD Case / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Disneynature: African Cats Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos Oceans Earth
Chimpanzees: Rise of the Planet of the Apes Spymate Speed Racer
Disney Chimps: The Barefoot Executive The Misadventures of Merlin Jones Monkeys, Go Home! Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus
Animals: Born to Be Wild 2001: A Space Odyssey Bambi The Lion King The Jungle Book Cheetah Dumbo
New: Dr. Seuss' The Lorax The Tigger Movie The Rescuers & The Rescuers Down Under
Tim Allen: Home Improvement: Seasons 1-8 The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause Toy Story 3 Galaxy Quest

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Reviewed August 20, 2012.



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