In Disneynature’s Chimpanzee, two filmmakers set out to capture the life of a 3-year-old chimpanzee growing up in the West African forest—until a potential film-ending event landed them extremely rare footage.
"It’s an amazing story that unfolded by amazing luck," says Jane Goodall, the legendary chimpanzee researcher who advised the filmmakers and whose Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) is a producer.
The film, which opens April 20, is narrated by Tim Allen and was created and directed by veteran wildlife documentarians Alastair Fothergill (Frozen Planet) and Mark Linfield, who last teamed on the 2007 nature documentary Earth. For every ticket sold for Chimpanzee during its opening week, Disneynature will make a donation to JGI, which works to protect chimpanzees and their habitats.
"Originally, it was about a baby chimp growing up in the forest as the main theme," says Goodall, who has studied the primates since the 1960s. "But then the mother died. So they had all this film about a baby, and now it had come to an end. Then to everyone’s utter amazement, the infant was adopted by an alpha male. That was incredible. That’s happened only once before, to my knowledge, in my chimp research." That came during a study by German primatologist Christophe Beosch at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
"Normally chimps live in families, and the family bond is very close. Usually an orphaned baby is adopted by an older brother or sister," says Goodall, adding that you wouldn’t expect an unrelated alpha male, on guard against younger challengers, to be "encumbered with an infant. Why he did it, we just don’t know."
Four years in the making, Chimpanzee was filmed in three locations in the Tai Forest National Park in the Ivory Coast. Although Goodall was not involved in the actual filming, the videographers tapped her for advice and she wrote the introduction for an accompanying book about the film.
The shoot was arduous. "You’re in difficult terrain or the forest struggling with heavy equipment, and chimps move very fast," she says. "From a distance, they look like black objects against a white sky, and you can’t see them at all if they’re close to you. Then there are the dreadful insects and snakes and weather. It was really tough for this film team."
Goodall notes certain parallels between human and chimp behavior, with humans standing to glean some lessons from chimps—particularly in business.
"In competition for alpha status, you use brains and personality to form alliances," she says. "Sheer aggression results in subordinates ganging up on you, which sounds very human, doesn’t it? One thing humans can learn from chimps, is that, after an aggressive incident that results in individuals fighting, they will make up with an embrace or kiss. There’s forgiveness and making up in chimpanzees."