Ready for some monkey business? If so, you’ll love Disneynature’s Chimpanzee — a gorgeously shot, pathos-filled slip of a documentary that follows Oscar, an infant chimp who endures the death of his mother. (It is, after all, a Disney movie.) As of today, the film’s available via Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, digital download or On Demand. And, for the next week, seeing Chimpanzee means saving real chimpanzees: Each time the movie is purchased through Aug. 27, 2012, Disneynature will make a donation through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund to the Jane Goodall Institute, which works to conserve chimpanzee habitat, educate the next generation, and provide care for orphaned chimpanzees.
On the eve of the film’s home release, we spoke with Dr. Goodall — who is acting as the film’s spokesperson — about apes, anthropomorphism, and why it’s a bad idea to try to help a chimp fighting a leopard. Read on for our interview — and to see another exclusive image from Chimpanzee.
How does Chimpanzee reflect your own experiences and your own work?
Wherever you study chimpanzees, you find slight differences in behavior. That’s the exciting thing about them, you know. They have cultural differences. And obviously some of the things that happen in West Africa end up being a bit different from Gombe [Stream Research Center in Tanzania]. It’s incredible footage. The filmmakers are just superb.
What surprised you most about the film?
Well, certainly some incredible scenes of intercommunity violence. We have intercommunity violence at Gombe as well, so it does happen everywhere. But it’s not very easy to film. And of course, the infant being adopted by the alpha male. It has happened before. At Gombe, we’ve had non-related individuals adopt infants, and the closest to that was a 12-year-old adolescent male who adopted a 3-year-old.
As a primatologist, how difficult is it to watch violence among the chimps and not want to intervene?
With things like leopard attacks and intercommunity violence, you can’t interfere. You physically can’t. They are approximately 10 times stronger than us. And of course, leopard attacks happen in the night. You’d be a bit stupid to get between a chimpanzee and a leopard, I think.
Some writers have criticized the film, saying that it’s too whimsical or that it doesn’t really reflect the savagery of life in the wild. How do you respond to that?
My reaction is, “Well, what are you after?” This is not a film made by a scientific team for a scientific audience. It’s supposed to get young people involved; that’s what Disney does. And I think from the point of view of getting young people interested in chimpanzees, it’s perfect. If you’re a scientist, okay, you might not like some of the language. But it doesn’t hurt anything. I’ve been personally criticized because I tend to use normal, everyday words rather than scientific jargon.
Do you think the animals are overly anthropomorphized in Chimpanzee?
Maybe slightly sometimes. We call it anthropomorphizing, which simply means being like us. But they are like us. We differ from them by over just one percent of our DNA.
One of the Jane Goodall Institute’s goals is to provide care for orphaned chimps. What, exactly, does that entail?
Unfortunately, it entails raising a lot of money and a lot of heartache. Our biggest sanctuary is in the heart of Congo-Brazzaville, and that’s the heart of the bush meat trade. So mothers are shot for their meat, and babies sold in the marketplace, which is illegal. Their babies can be handed over to us, confiscated, and we have to look after them. That means basically looking after them for life, and they can live to be 70. We hope to find places where they can be released in the wild, but it’s very difficult because you have to have a place with no other chimps or they might be attacked — and where there’s suitable food, where there’s no hunting. And not many people. It’s a very tough situation. We have over 150 chimps to look after right now. That’s why we’re very grateful for the help that we get from the film.
What do you hope viewers will take from the film?
I hope they’ll have a renewed interest in chimpanzees and, as they find out more, that they will be encouraged to want to help to save them. And that means saving their forests. And by saving their forests, they’re also helping to slow down climate change.
Read more about Dr. Goodall’s work — and learn how you can help save the chimps — at the Jane Goodall Institute’s website.