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“Stuffed Animals”

Grade: B- (RENT IT)

IN THE DARWIN wars of today, Richard Dawkins is sometimes called “Darwin’s bulldog” or most outspoken advocate.  But back in 1863, plenty of English naturalists came to Darwin’s defense, including Thomas Henry Huxley whose review of the Origin of Species helped to shape the public’s view of evolutionary biology.  In Man’s Place in Nature (published in London four years after Darwin’s Origin), Huxley wrote:  “On all sides I shall hear the cry – ‘We are men and women, not a mere better sort of apes, a little longer in the leg, more compact in the foot, and bigger in brain than your brutal Chimpanzees and Gorillas.  The power of knowledge – the conscience of good and evil – the pitiful tenderness of human affections, raise us out of all real fellowship with the brutes, however closely they may seem to approximate us.”  To this Huxley could only reply that no absolute line could be drawn between the “animal world and ourselves.”  He pointed in particular to the cerebral hemispheres of a Man and of a Chimpanzee to show their overwhelming similarities.

To further collapse the distance between man and monkey, there’s now “Chimpanzee,” the new wildlife film from Disneynature, which follows an orphaned chimp named Oscar in the Tai forest of Ivory Coast in Africa.  The film’s real strength is its dazzling cinematography: time-lapse sequences of jungle birds and glow-in-the-dark mushrooms.  Whether little Oscar knows it or not, he’s ready for his close-up and filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield provide us with astoundingly up-close and personal angles of him cracking nuts, climbing trees, and, well, since this is Disney, looking downright adorable.  The only bit of pathos in “Chimpanzee” is when Oscar’s mother is slain by a rival group of chimps (led by the unimaginatively named Scar), leaving our little one to starve and scramble vainly to find new sources of support and sustenance.  Fortunately for Oscar, along comes Freddy, his group’s alpha male, who improbably adopts him and shows him the ropes.  Narrated by Tim Allen, “Chimpanzee” is a wonder to look at but the relentless anthropomorphizing of its star’s experience turns Oscar into a lifeless stuffed animal thrown atop a toy bin rather than a wild animal struggling to survive.  This is the only nature documentary that ignores the fierce fact that it’s a jungle out there.

Most of what really constitutes wild nature – the chimps’ strategic ambush of a colobus monkey after which they tear it limb-from-limb, the brutalities of mating and the threats of leopards – are kept carefully out-of-view.  “Chimpanzee” is designed for small children, after all, but to strip a wild animal of its wildness only to foreground its cuteness is to paradoxically control and contain it, which makes a trip to see “Chimpanzee” not so much an eye-opening experience but a trip to that most depressing of places, the city zoo.  Fothergill and Linfield leave you with the odd sense that a civilized animal is no animal at all.