By Roger Moore
ORLANDO — A few films into their Disneynature movie-making experience, producer-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, veterans of the BBC’s acclaimed “Planet Earth” series, figure they’re finally getting the hang of Disney.
“Of course, Disney provides us with a lot of money,” Fothergill said after the Orlando world premiere of “Chimpanzee,” the latest from the filmmakers who gave us “Earth” and “African Cats” between them. And money “translates into time in the field. We had over 700 shooting days on ‘Chimpanzee,’ almost three times as much as say, ‘African Cats.’”
“And Disney allows us not to make a documentary,” Fothergill said. “We’re trying to have a narrative, tell a story.”
“That’s what they’re teaching us,” Linfield adds. “Story.”
Even in a documentary, you start with a script, a part of the animal’s lives you expect to be able to tell, Linfield said. But you need to have the money to be able to change directions, if that’s what the animals do.
“‘African Cats’ played out close to the script,” Fothergill said with a chuckle. “The chimps never even looked at the script, much less read it.”
Having Disney backing meant that the studio sent screenwriters from “Beauty and the Beast” and “Toy Story 2” to “rip our script to shreds, in a very constructive way,” Linfield says. “Disney’s input was far more oriented toward Hollywood storytelling, and that was incredibly helpful.”
Thus, “Chimpanzee” plays as a nature documentary with Disney touches. We meet Oscar, a baby, and follow him as he learns from his fellow chimpanzees how to use tools to gather ants and crack nuts. We see him lose his mom, and we see him adopted by the group’s alpha male, behavior almost unheard of by the researchers who helped create the film.
Disney touches? Hiring Tim Allen as narrator, adding jokes to the script.
“Disney execs were at the recording session, and they’d yell, ‘Get Tim to do the ‘power tool grunt’ for this scene’ (with the chimps using tools). Alastair and I looked at each other. We’re Brits. We didn’t know what they were on about. And Tim was rolling his eyes, ‘Not that again.’ He did it, we resisted putting it in the movie — slightly resisted it. And then today, when the audience roared, we realized how wrong we were.”
Some critics are bashing the film’s kid-friendly “Disney touches,” with Slant magazine complaining about an overdose of “cuteness.”
But with Disney’s long track record of aiming movies at and then reaching younger viewers, reviews like that may be irrelevant.
Disney touches aside, it took a Disney-sized investment to make “Chimpanzee,” which Fothergill says was four or five times as difficult as “African Cats,” which he co-directed.
“This is a very dark, thick forest with black animals in the shadows. Ninety percent of the time, that’s all you see — shadows. They’re hidden by the foliage. Technically, just getting footage of them is difficult. Tai National Park (in Ivory Coast) is a humbling place.”
Linfield jokes that at the outset, they had “a paranoia that it was going to be nothing but black shapes in the dark forest — very claustrophobic.”
They rented gear, ziplines to make the cameras fly through the forest, ways to get camera up above the forest canopy.
Cameramen, paid tribute in the film’s closing credits, would work with assistants from researcher Christophe Boesch’s team, which has been studying these chimps for over 30 years. They’d spend days following chimps who cover 10 miles a day, “at speed, through dense rain forest,” with only the hope of grabbing a single shot a day — “20 seconds of film,” Linfield said.
“We are always a hostage to fortune,” he adds. “You need a little bit of luck, filming a nature documentary. Clearly, seeing Oscar orphaned and then adopted by the alpha male was an incredible stroke of luck. The researchers we showed it to had to pick their jaws up off the floor.”
That’s one of the reasons primate researchers such as Jane Goodall have endorsed the film. Linfield hopes audiences will, too.
“It’s very hard to convince people to conserve things they don’t care about,” Linfield said. “We want to make hem care about ‘African Cats,’ and ‘Chimpanzees.’ The way to do that is to tell a compelling story and be more than just a conservation film.”