It is something else to look into the eyes of a Chimpanzee staring out of a giant movie screen, the rainforest canopy reflected in those intent pellucid mirrors so like our own.
I don't know if I will ever get the chance to really look into the eyes of our closest cousins, the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, in their natural habitat in the wild. I have seen them in captivity, and lingered around their captive groups, which appear not entirely unhappy in modern zoo habitats enriched to sustain their social behaviors. I have also seen them in a number of documentaries on the television, usually with the familiar face and voice of Jane Goodall (Jane-didu or Grandma Jane to my daughters) accompanying the story. Those have been the best avenues available to most of us wanting to understand something about the lives of these cousins of ours. Most of us will not be able to see those lives up close in person in the wild - and that is a good thing. It is enough, for the most part, to know that we still continue to share this planet with these evolutionary siblings of ours, even though their numbers have dwindled and we continue to ravage their habitats. As a wildlife biologist, I do hope/dream of someday making it to Africa to see them in person. I don't know if that will ever happen.
In the meantime, I will take this incredible peek into their lives on the big screen at my local multiplex:
We saw the film a few hours ago, on opening night at the behest of our youngest, N, who can't help but squeal in fangirl excitement every time she hears Jane Goodall's voice or sees her face. N had already watched her appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (yes, my 6-year-old is also a big fan of Stewart and Colbert) earlier this week, delighted by the anticipated chimpanzee greeting they exchanged, and listening rapt to the story of the film as told by Jane. The moment N heard that a portion of the ticket price would go to the Jane Goodall Institute during opening week, it was decided: we were going to see it on opening day!
I went in with a fair bit of trepidation, given that the film comes under the DisneyNature (yes, its their own copyrighted version of nature) banner, and aware that the proliferation of nature shows has also dragged down the quality of these films in recent years. As George Black wrote in that pointed critique just a couple of weeks ago, "...we’ve kept the thrills but we’re losing the story... ... Think of it as nature porn." So I was wary of this film, and even said to my girls while heading to the theater that I wish we had the option to turn off the audio in such films and just enjoy the visuals.
As it turned out, I need not have worried. Because soon after the beginning, as the camera took us (slowly, without jump cuts or shaky cam effects) into the rainforest of West Africa, immersing us into the dark green world beneath the mist-shrouded canopy, giving us our first glimpse of the chimpanzees, it settled down to look into a pair of those pellucid eyes, letting the face fill much of the big screen - and I was lost.
As you can see from the two videos I've shared above, the film crew stumbled upon a truly remarkable story in the adoption of the orphaned Oscar by his troop's dominant male Fred. I am glad, therefore, that the director and scriptwriter did not succumb to the tendency to overly dramatize such events, and bury them under a layer of schmaltz. They trusted the story, and let it unfold for us, taking the time to build a full picture of life as a chimpanzee in that rainforest: with remarkable footage of tool-use in the course of daily foraging, a thrilling sequence of Fred leading his friends in a well-coordinated colobus monkey hunt, and insights into the social dynamics of chimpanzee society both within and between troops. Yes, they labeled the neighboring troop as villains of the piece, but given that it appeared to be composed largely of males, with no young chimps (was this really the case, or merely a result of careful shot selection?), that bit of dramatic tension too hit the emotional mark.
I have seen such drama up close among bonnet macaques at my field site in southern India, and thought then that that would make for great soap opera. This film rises above even that, and tells a truly touching, thought-provoking, ultimately heart-warming tale, Even the voiceover narration stayed in the right zone, I thought, with just enough silly humor mixed with pathos that did not dissolve into sap even at the most poignant moments. It helped that the voice was not that of God (Morgan Freeman) but of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). And the anthropomorphisms too did not seem out of place - for these are, after all, the most anthropomorphic of animals we have left on the planet. Watching the complex behaviors, and the facial expressions of the chimps, it seemed perfectly natural to view them as our kin, whom we might actually be able to understand using some of our own framework of thinking - even as they may shed light on our own social evolution.
The anthropomorphic tone, which had seemed jarringly over-the-top when applied to penguins (by God, no less), is much more appropriate with chimps. Especially when the tale unfolding has such resonance for our own social lives: the mother-infant bond, the social bonds and anxieties of living in territorial groups, the culture of learning complex behaviors including making and using tools for various tasks, the orphaned young chimp trying to find a place in the troop, which is met with the truly remarkable altruism of the big alpha male, showing his tender side, adopting the child when even most females had rejected him. Why did he do it - the evolutionary biologist in me (fresh from teaching kin selection theory earlier in the day) wonders? Was he the father? Perhaps - but how could he be sure of that in a promiscuous society? Was he thinking ahead to the longer-term need for more male allies in his troop (seems far-fetched)? Or did he simply feel it was the natural, right thing to do? The human thing to do. Isn't it?
N's favorite scene was when, weeks into the growing relationship between Oscar and Fred, we see the little boy reach into the big male's hand, and grab a bit of nutmeat from just in front of his mouth - just like she loves to do with me!
Who needs to amp up the drama when life is full of such moments? I'm glad the filmmakers didn't yield to that base media impulse, instead choosing to deliver the first real dramatic story (at least the first I've seen) from the life of another species, projected on the big screen at our neighborhood multiplex.
Go see the film, for it has a "triple thumbs up" from N! I'm certain we will be adding it to our home library when it comes out on disc. But right now, if you can, see it during the first week to send some of your ticket price towards actual Chimpanzee conservation, or visit the Jane Goodall Institute for ways to make even more of a difference to this planet of us apes.
Just look into those eyes, on the big screen, and tell me that saving chimpanzees is not a crucial part of saving ourselves.