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“Chimpanzee” and the Problem of Anthropomorphism

Chimpanzee is one of those movies that doesn’t even require words to be summarized: just take a gander at the poster above.

This new Disneynature doc is about, in case you couldn’t tell, a cute little chimp who lives in the forests of Africa. He’s cute. And he’s little. And because he’s a chimp you already know that he’ll do some playful and endearing things.

Couple that with some very earnest filmmakers who worked hard to bring us some up-close and intimate footage of primates in their unspoiled habitat, and what’s not to like?

Well, that’s actually the problem…

The focus of Chimpanzee is so single-mindedly on crafting a likable version of nature that the finished product could be said not even to resemble nature. Or, to be more charitable, it resembles “nature” in the same way that the Disney animated pics The Jungle Book (1967) or Tarzan (1999) do—as a setting for encounters between animals who are good and those who are bad, and an overall narrative that is “full of drama, sadness, and joy,” to use the script’s own words.

Unlike The Jungle Book or Tarzan, however, there are no human beings present. Still, they’re never actually missed because, frankly, all the chimps are presented as people every step of the way.

This incessant and, ultimately, misleading anthropomorphism of wildlife is certainly not unique to this film or to Disney by any means. In a follow-up post we’ll be getting into the pros and cons of such an approach, and a consideration of it in other media products as well. For now, though, here’s a set of media literacy questions that you might want to share with students either before or after viewing Chimpanzee, which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, April 20.

  • How does language such as a “precious baby boy named ‘Oscar’” position the audience in the opening minutes?
  • Do any of the chimpanzees actually have names? And since the answer is no, how does the script’s assigning of names likewise position the audience to view the individual animals in a particular way?
  • How does naming the villain, the leader of a neighboring/rival group of chimps, “Scar” predispose us to being unsympathetic to him? Also, how does this name itself recall the evil antagonist of the 1994 blockbuster movie The Lion King (and stage musical, etc.)?
  • Scar’s followers are called “thugs” (and similar terms) because they wish to expand their territory to obtain a more reliable/substantial food supply. Yet when Oscar’s friends hunt down and devour small monkeys out of hunger, it’s portrayed as an exciting exercise of strategy and skill. So here’s the perfect chance to employ a classic media literacy question: what would that same scene look like from the monkeys’ point of view? Who would then be “the bad guys”?
  • How is music used to cue audience emotions throughout? Yes, this is true of nearly every movie, but the key idea here is to what extent the score creates emotions among those in the film that we can’t even be sure they’re experiencing.
  • How is music used to imply actions that are simply not occurring? For example, how does the inclusion of the upbeat jazz to accompany rhythmic or repetitive movements create the illusion that the chimps are “dancing”? Do they ever actually hear any music?
  • Where does the voice-over narration by Tim Allen pretend to know, and express, the actual thoughts of the chimps? What is the cumulative effect of this technique in terms of the audience forgetting that it’s watching animals, not people who happen to be in animal form?
  • How does the editing of certain camera angles in sequence suggest that we’re seeing things from a chimp’s point-of-view, thus making us identifying with it? That is, when we see a shot of a chimp looking upward followed by a low-angle shot of the bottom of the forest canopy, we process the visual information as “this is what the chimp is seeing.”
  • Finally, how is Earth Day used in this case of this film, and in home video and book releases generally—and even by this very blog—as a kind of marketing and promotion vehicle or hook? And is that “bad”?

All right, that’s enough for now. Again, I don’t mean to pick on Chimpanzee too much, as plenty of other media products employ the same formal strategies to re-package the natural world into more human-friendly texts. The point is, does celebrating Earth Day or allowing children to enjoy informative non-fiction media mean that they, and we, should stop exercising our critical thinking skills?

Well, I think you know the answer to that one.

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About Peter Gutierrez

Comments

  1. Good questions, all. I try to avoid any anthropomorphism when I’m writing about wildlife, skipping words like “majestic” and “noble” and “magical” that often slip into animal rights conversations.

  2. Judy Ashby says:

    Excellent points and questions to encourage critical thinking. And yet, I still can’t wait to go watch that cute baby chimp…

  3. Excellent media literacy questions here, not just for Disney-esque films but for ANY and ALL anthropomorphism (animated, commercial, or documentary/persuasive in the realm of food/health literacy too—media’s power of persuasion flipped my teen into vegetarianism a few years back and it was a fascinating analysis as to how/why/when/which elements contributed the most)

    From the macro lens, the purposes of making nature more ‘appealing’ to expose kids to 21st century endangered habitat issues is crucial, as is the accompanying Jane Goodall eco-literacy for a deeper dive on ecosystems and our role as stewards of the planet, so guess I tend to fall into the ‘whatever works/make it happen’ approach to media production when kids are armed with crucial critical thinking skills as you’ve outlined here!

    Well done, Peter; huge fan of your work.

    p.s. Here’s my post/POV with links to JGI edu: http://www.shapingyouth.org/?p=18430 (the whole time I kept thinking how hard it must’ve been for Dr. Jane Goodall to embrace the mousehouse in a full blown partnership for donor dollars/grant $, but if Rich Louv (Nature Deficit Disorder/Nature Principle, founder of ChildrenAndNature.org) can do so, she can too! Both are worthy orgs in dire need of DisneyNature dollars (wish it were more than chump change for chimps; but maybe if it’s a huge hit they’ll extend the .20/ticket opening week offer) ;-)