Thursday, September 10, 2015

Between Entertainment and Education: the Disneynature’s Chimpanzee

by Sebastian Smoliński
Walt Disney Studios are best known for their animated movies, but equally interesting is the history of company’s efforts in the field of wildlife documentaries. Contemporary movies about nature owe a great deal to the patterns developed by Disney associates in the years 1948-1960. It was then when True-Life Adventures were produced – the first such a successful attempt to bring remote nature and animals on screen. Beginning with Seal Island and finishing with Jungle Cat (each movie was directed by the series veteran James Algar), True-Life Adventures won 8 Academy Awards (for best short and full-length documentaries) and were an enormous commercial hit. The series laid the foundations for “blue chip” wildlife films: the subgenre most popular in the United States and Great Britain (with dramatic narrative patterns and omnipresent voice-over).[1]
Walt Disney practically stopped making wildlife films in 1960, but in 2007 the label Disneynature emerged, which continues the studio’s traditions up to this day. One of the features made by Disneynature was Chimpanzee, directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield and released in 2012. The film is my primary focus in this paper, but I would like to describe its treatment of chimpanzees in reference to wildlife films genre in general. There are many cognitive limitations in Disney’s way of telling stories about animals, and it can be argued that they did not change over the decades. Thus, one can look at these “documentaries” (even this seemingly neutral category is problematic) as a compromise between entertainment and education: sometimes beneficial for both, but most often privileging the former. After all, movies produced by Disneynature are an all-family entertainment. They should reach a wide audience; their target is not an exclusive group of biologists and other scientists interested in the lives and habits of rare, endangered animals.
This need to make nature easily digestible influences Disney’s narratives on many levels. First of all, the films must be highly engaging and interesting, that is: “dramatic”. True-Life Adventures are well-known for their rendering of animals’ everyday life. Only the most vivid and striking episodes shot in the wild made it to the final movie. Moreover, despite the urge to present these films as “documentaries” and stories which truthfully portray the life of its non-human heroes, they were often staged and manipulated. The most famous example is the sequence with lemmings from James Algar’s White Wilderness from 1958. The film narrates a shocking episode with lemmings looking for new territory and shows their frenzied journey towards the sea. In the climax lemmings are shown jumping of the cliff into the water, to meet certain death. They behave as mindless, unstoppable creatures. Years later it turned out that the scene was faked; lemmings were thrown off the cliff by filmmakers who nonetheless called their work a True-Life Adventure.
Such treatment of animals is obviously unacceptable in moral terms. The lemmings were used to make the movie more dramatic and horrifying. This sequence from White Wilderness is credited as the chief source of the false myth that lemmings are “by nature” suicidal.[2] Although it may seem a radical example, it gives a good picture of the basic problem with Disney’s (and Disneynature’s) “documentaries”: they strive to be as thrilling as animated and live-action films. In Chimapanzee, the viewer is introduced to the fascinating world of African Great Apes, but the jungle presented is not geographically specific. As all Disney wildlife films, Chimpanzee supposedly takes place in a quasi-mythical rainforest, “barely touched by human kind”, as the narrator suggests (voice-over narration is the main device used by “blue chip” documentaries to construct meaning; it is constantly present and explains all the depicted actions). No sooner than during the end titles we realize that the footage was shot in Ivory Coast and Uganda (in addition, the aerial footage showing the landscape was captured in Gabon). How is it possible, then, that the movie tells a single, coherent story of two chimpanzee groups fighting each other? The manipulation is obvious, but can it be somehow justified?
Chimpanzee was coproduced by Jane Goodall Institute, and Jane Goodall herself is actively promoting the movie.[3] Her authority gives it a well-known expert’s seal of approval. However, this credit may be considered as undeserved, because the real scientific advisor was Christophe Boesch, the figure less recognizable by the popular audience. Yet, the film is far from a scientific exploration. It is a work of talented filmmakers who found breathtaking images and structured them into a partly fictionalized story. By “fiction” I mean the voice-over narration (read by Tim Allen). It transforms the here-and-now of chimpanzees’ contemporary life into a documentary fable. The voice-over is relatively simple and written in a clear manner. It significantly anthropomorphizes the chimpanzees by a way of attributing them human-like thoughts and language. The narrator also pretends to have access to animals’ inner monologues.
In one scene, the older chimpanzee takes a precious stone (used to crack nuts) which belonged to the younger one who went away. As a commentary to this scene, Tim Allen’s voice whispers on behalf of the older, lucky ape: “What an idiot…” Apart from a degree of insult implicit in this line, one may ask if such a commentary is necessary in the first place. I would argue that it is more than obsolete; it is the main way of distorting the representation of chimpanzee lives. The narrator tells a complicated story of two groups of chimpanzees fighting each other, of little Oscar’s mother’s death, and of his adoption by the alpha-male Freddy. The basic plot is perfectly understandable even without the annoying, infantile voice-over. The overabundance of off screen commentary leaves no space for the viewer to think, doubt, or contemplate. He or she is in a way forced to follow the narrator’s logic. The voice-over creates ready-made meanings, framing chimpanzees’ stories in an unscientific, anecdotal manner.
The second way of “fictionalizing” and dramatizing the daily life of Ivory Coast and Uganda’s chimpanzees is editing. The raw footage was, most probably, not as manipulated as in the case of White Wilderness and other True-Life Adventures. Nowadays, ethical standards and discourse on human-animal relations is considerably higher. However, in an editing room everything is possible. In Chimpanzee, pop songs were added to the shots of animals playing, resting, and having fun. Nicholas Hooper wrote the orchestral score which carefully follows animals’ movements, moods, and the film’s rhythm. Most importantly, distinct shots were put next to each other in order to achieve an illusion of a “natural”, true story. The editing helps to shape Chimpanzee’s basic structure. The film constructs the world of good and evil facing each other. Good are chimps close to Freddy, bad are those who stay with the “Scar” (this is the name of an alpha-male from the rival group). The whole conflict is simplified and shown in black-and-white terms. It allows the audience to identify with Freddy’s group and brings to the movie a lot of tension.
The editing and voice over narration are also used to construct controversial storyline. Contrary to the filmmakers’ claim that nothing was “scripted”, huge part of the plot was fabricated. In the article “Rainforest Fiction: Disney ‘Chimpanzee’ Film a Splice of Life”, Jörg Blech described the manipulation invented by the creators in order to present a coherent and touching story.[4] The details were revealed by the film’s scientific consultant, the aforementioned Christophe Boesch from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Two main issues he discovered concern the “evil” gang of chimpanzees and the story of Oscar. As it turned out, the rival group was filmed in Uganda while principal photography (the story of “good” chimpanzees) was made in Ivory Coast. The two have never met each other and did not fight; the supposed confrontation was faked and smoothly incorporated into the plot.
The other lie on the filmmakers’ part concerns the adoption process. Freddy, indeed, took care of the orphaned Oscar, but the young chimp died seven months later. As one of the studies showed, this is, unfortunately, a typical fate of infant chimps who lost their parents. In consequence, and in order to preserve the beautiful, moving story, Oscar was played by five different chimpanzees. So, we should rather speak of the “Oscar” – a figure which is a mix of several animals playing the same character.
These two big changes made by Disney filmmakers are problematic, because they were not announced; Disneynature company actually wanted to hide the true story. It is, certainly, another example of a deceptive storyline in the studio’s long tradition of fictionalized wildlife films. However, the filmmakers should have treated both humans and chimpanzees with respect and openly speak about the non-documentary elements in their film. The movie should not be presented as having a “natural”, objective story when it is rather a product of people’s imagination. This undermines the film’s educational value and questions the filmmakers’ honesty.
Voice over narration, editing, and fictionalized story make Chimpanzee look and feel more like one of Disney’s animated movies. However, I would argue that there are several elements in it which deserve an acknowledgment. Firstly, Disney’s strategy of anthropomorphizing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it suggests that all animals are like humans: they have similar lifestyle, values, and needs – it deprives them of their distinctive character and describes in human-oriented categories. On the other hand, anthropomorphizing does grant animals some important qualities. For example, the narrator speaks of chimpanzees’ “cultural heritage”, describes their use of various tools, and sketches interpersonal relations within a group. In other words, the voice over narration convinces the viewers that chimpanzees have rich and diverse culture. Thus, Chimpanzee can have a noble educational role in informing people around the globe about the uniqueness and specificity of our Great Ape cousins.
Secondly, if the footage used is “real”, then the movie cannot be completely inaccurate. The story similar to that of “Oscar” and “Freddy” (who gave the chimps their names?) has indeed happened. The scientists were surprised that alpha-male adopted a young, orphan male chimp. This kind of behavior is unusual, but its elements were captured by camera and now may be discussed (and questioned) by everyone who watched the movie. Undoubtedly, “Oscar’s” story was framed to fit the narrow patterns of Disney’s “blue chip” wildlife documentaries (emotionally engaging, sentimental story about a suddenly awakened “parenthood”), but genre’s limitations allow the viewer to come closer to the elementary understating of chimpanzees. Watching “Oscar” and “Freddy” building a strong bond with each other, one can look at our close cousins as animals with their own strong emotions, personality, and ways of caring for each other. Under the straightforward surface of Chimpanzee, there lies a mystery of non-human love and commitment.

[1] For the short history of True-Life Adventures, see: Derek Bousé, Wildlife Films (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 61-70.

[2] Chris Palmer, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2010), 38.
[3] For further information visit Jane Goodall Institute’s site. One of the news about Chimpanzee can be found here:
[4] Jörg Blech, “Rainforest Fiction: Disney ‘Chimpanzee’ Film a Splice of Life”, Spiegel Online International, April 29, 2013,

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