Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Writers: Mark Linfield, Alastair Fothergill, Don Hahn
Stars: Tim Allen
From deep in the dense rain forest of Africa’s Ivory Coast comes a new hero brought to a theater near you by way of Disneynature’s “Planet Earth” state of the art documentary filmmaking. If you like a surprising turn of events to be a real surprise then see Chimpanzee first and read my essay about the film second. That’s my spoiler alert. On the other hand, if early disclosure that Chimpanzee contains an emerging archetype in our society makes you more eager to see the film, read on.
Disney would like us to focus on Oscar, the abandoned and adorable chimp who, like so many heroes before him, loses his mother and – somehow – survives to bring us a new day. But I’m wagering the hero who’s going to capture your attention and bring the vision for a new day is Freddy, the lead alpha male chimpanzee. As we dig for the values and fearless will to meet unprecedented global challenges, we can look to Freddy who, in his prime and at the height of his power, cracks the hero world wide open. In Chimpanzee Freddy successfully leads, provides and protects successfully by wits and strength of masculinity as startling as the times we face. He’s sending us all a fresh superhero imago tied securely to the force of our planet’s evolving nature.
Chimpanzee treats its audience to more wonders of a rain forest than its chimp inhabitants. The rain forest is illuminated as an ever-moving symbol of transformation by stunning time-lapse photography that brings the entire terrain alive. Vines climb trees as eagerly as monkeys. Drops of rain explode tiny fungi. Furled leaves open driven by unseen forces. As close as the camera zooms in to capture fingernails grooming and clawed ants scrambling over one another, it goes panoramic. We hang high in the sky mid-air over treetops rendered into an undulating carpet of green as far as the eye can see. And now and then, hinting at sacred places beyond reach, the highflying camera penetrates the canopy to reveal cascading waterfalls. For nature lovers, the wildly lush cinematography of Chimpanzee might just be enough adventure.
Even the close encounters with chimpanzee life in the jungle could be enough. Chimps are fascinating. Natural born actors, the camera loves them and gives their every gesture extra cinematic oomph. I watched a chimp methodically crack a tough nut with a stone and then felt myself waiting to watch it all over again. The next time, I watched more closely, noticing the dip in the log where the chimp placed the nut and seeing how a rock works as a hammer and a wooden log doesn’t. But both logs and rocks break, get stolen by other chimps and still the pounding goes on. To eat hundreds of nuts a day takes a lot of skill and a lot of determination. Whether the chimps are making a bed of branches in a tree, stuffing their mouths with figs, berries and fruit or ambushing a monkey for lunch, we’re watching the strategic mind of apes at work. Are they planning?
But just in case awe inspiring images of nature and close encounters with chimps isn’t enough, Chimpanzee lifts a conflict between one tribe of apes and another to the level of human drama. Freddy’s tribe occupies a sweet spot in the forest where a stand of coula nut trees keep them healthy and well nourished. But, not far away by chimp miles, another tribe hovers in a nearby valley, positing an ever-looming threat to Freddy’s peace. They’re a large strong band of apes led by a leader named Scar for an eye that’s been semi-blinded in battle. Even watching these big guys push through the brush in front of the camera lens is a little too close for comfort. Larger, hungrier, and more aggressive, they raid Freddy’s camp on occasion for food and attempt territory take-over. And, on one occasion, Oscar’s mother is wounded and disappears. And while Oscar does seem like a special chimp, always a little more acrobatic and insistent, he’s barely three years old, not old enough to survive on his own.
But we get to watch him try. Oscar hunts everywhere for his mother. He tries going it alone. He tries another mother and gets a big toothy snarl for his effort. His friends shun him. He’s getting very skinny because he can’t crack a nut, can’t share in honey finds or get the ants out of their hole. And so he tries something very brave. He follows Freddy around and eats whatever drops from Freddy’s paw. He mimics Freddy. There’s an unmistakable bonding moment during which Oscar ‘apes’ eating a fruit just like Freddy does, pushing a huge glob back out of his mouth on cue in an equally disgusting manner. And for whatever unfathomable reason, Freddy yields to Oscar’s appeal, allowing Oscar to pad around after him. Then Freddy lets Oscar get closer. He teaches him things. He shows Oscar how to break a nut and how to eat ants on a stick. Then, wonders of all wonders, Freddy gives Oscar the first nut he breaks and lets him take a chewed bean from his own mouth – just like a mother would. And then, in a highly atypical accommodation for a male ape, Freddy allows Oscar to hitch a ride on his back as only a mother would allow.
I have to admit. This highly unusual sight of a baby chimp cuddled up in the arms of a hulking adult male chimpanzee who loosely resembles the film legend, King Kong, raised my suspicion of its verite. But I had been inspired to see Chimpanzee by Jane Goodall who appeared on the Daily Show to promote the film. She explained that the camera crew had come to the Ivory Coast for other documentary film reasons and then, by chance, caught the story of Freddy adopting Oscar. Goodall’s interview made it legit. It was real footage, not staged or photo-shopped.
Once Freddy tends to Oscar, it’s clear that the little guy will survive but will the tribe? Freddy has neglected his duties as sentinel and leader of his pack to tend to Oscar. Scar’s tribe circles for an attack, sizing up the relaxed guard. Then, as if receiving an invisible – or mythic – call to action, Freddy turns away from Oscar and returns to a key act of his leadership. Grooming. He grooms – literally, symbolically and actually – his male mates for battle. Scar and his mob attack Freddy’s tribe in full force and we get to watch! It is truly something to see these huge figures battling while swinging and climbing with an agility of flight through thick trees and brush. Next, with full confidence, Freddy takes the lead and goes head-to-head with Scar for dominance. Whether the younger male apes of his tribe wonder or not, we wonder. Has the emergence of a maternal side diminished Freddy’s skill and superiority?
But we have little to worry about. Freddy might as well have ripped open his shirt and donned a cape. He’s already a hero who possesses the strength of character of a leader, upholds positive values in his community and exhibits a fierce determination to protect those values. Now, his tribe depends on his innovative spirit and good judgment to be more than ordinary, to be extraordinary. Without hesitation he leaps into battle. And Freddy’s relationship-building abilities pay off. His team backs him up. As he runs Scar into the bush, he thumps a tree like a drum, loudly sending the winning signal and settling the dispute about territory between these two tribes for some time to come.
And so I ask. When the dust settles…or the rain falls…what must we conclude? How has Freddy’s feeding, nurturing and mentoring of Oscar added to our cultural notion of the hero? We know hero imagery is always on the change depending on the imagination we need to face the enemy. Can we add nurturing qualities to the realm of fantastic powers that will enhance our abilities to protect ourselves against future threats? We do have some tough nuts to crack on the horizon.