Partway through the four-year production of the Disneynature documentary "Chimpanzee," an inconvenient thing happened: Isha, the mother of the film's cuddly star, Oscar, was killed. But as the film's executive producer, Don Hahn, noted at a recent screening: "Well, it's a tradition in Disney, so let's keep going."
A good thing they did. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, both documentary veterans, end up with a story far more dramatic than just a day-to-day chronicle of life among the chimps of Africa's Taï Forest. As for the movie's unexpected ending, it's so perfect it could have been borrowed from one of Hahn's other Disney productions, like "The Lion King" or "Beauty and the Beast."
Rated G and narrated with kid-friendly humor by Tim Allen, "Chimpanzee" humanizes its subjects in the usual ways: Oscar's group of chimps, led by the hulking male Freddy, are the "good" guys terrorized by a villain named -- what else? -- Scar. Still, the movie doesn't entirely sugarcoat things. Oscar's family are the ones who devour a rather horrifying delicacy (monkeys!) and they're also the ones who coldly reject the newly-orphaned chimp. The images of little Oscar growing thin and tick-bitten with no one to feed or groom him are heartbreaking.
Here comes a slight spoiler, but it's part of what makes "Chimpanzee" so unusual: In a turn of events rarely seen in chimp societies, Oscar is eventually adopted by a male. And not just any male, but top honcho Freddy himself. These scenes are irresistible: You can almost hear Freddy sighing as he dutifully hands over his food to the saucer-eyed kid. Walt Disney himself couldn't have scripted "Chimpanzee" any better.
PLOT An orphaned baby chimp struggles to survive in the African jungle.
RATING G (brief but intense scenes of hunting and aggression)
CAST Narrated by Tim Allen
PLAYING AT Area theaters.
BOTTOM LINE Cute, of course, but also suprisingly compelling thanks to some unplanned-for plot-twists.