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Cute simian steals the show in ‘Chimpanzee’

After his mother dies baby Oscar must learn fend for himself documentary “Chimpanzee.”

After his mother dies, baby Oscar must learn to fend for himself in the documentary “Chimpanzee.”

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‘Chimpanzee’ ★★★

DisneyNature presents a documentary directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. Running time: 78 minutes. Rated G. Opening Friday at local theaters.

Updated: May 21, 2012 8:07AM

‘Chimpanzee,” DisneyNature’s fourth in its series of nature documentaries released for Earth Day, is gorgeously photographed, heartwarming, inspiring and adorable. It combines astonishingly vivid and intimate footage of animal life with narration that sometimes crosses the line between accessible and intrusive.

This G-rated saga has a “Bambi” problem, however. Primatologists are excited about sharing the unexpected and undeniably sweet story of an orphaned baby chimp adopted by an unrelated male. But that means the cute baby has to lose his mother first. It is handled discreetly, but we have seen how tenderly she cares for her son and how much he depends on her, so sensitive viewers of any age may find her loss and the baby’s abandonment by the other adults disturbing.

Narrator Tim Allen introduces us to newborn Oscar, whose tiny, wizened face is utterly captivating as he begins to explore the world around him. His mother, Isha, cuddles him, feeds him and patiently teaches him how to survive in the jungle. They are part of a tribe led by alpha male Freddy, who provides protection and helps search for food. “The jungle itself is a living, healthy thing that does not want to be eaten,” Allen tells us.

Nuts are hard to open and honey is guarded by bees. As the area is cut into by development, food becomes harder to find. The chimps are threatened by an invasion from a nearby group of hungry chimps with “a formidable leader named Scar.” The choice of names and framing of the story unhesitatingly directs our loyalties. Scar “steals” but Freddy and his tribe bravely forage for food.

Like Sharks and Jets, the two groups have deadly battles over turf. Oscar is left alone. He is still too young to fend for himself, and at first, he cannot find anyone to take care of him. Freddy becomes his adoptive father, but soon faces the work/life balance problem that’s all too familiar. He is so enthralled with his new son that he begins to neglect his job of protecting the group. And Scar is waiting for his chance to return.

Allen’s commentary is sometimes corny and distractingly over-anthropomorphized. But the film’s breathtaking visuals, and the brave and affectionate hearts of these beautiful creatures continue to draw us back in.

We see how the chimpanzees communicate and cooperate, how they use tools and teach one another survival skills, and how they use grooming to build community and define their hierarchy. Deep within the grand sweep of the African rainforest, illuminated by the gentle glow of bio-luminescent fungi, Oscar and Freddy teach us that “humanity” is too narrow a term to encompass the love, courage and compassion these chimps so clearly understand.

Nell Minow is a film critic for the website

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