Since its release, the Disney/BBC film Chimpanzee has sparked a unique debate. In both published reviews and message boards across the Internet, there are discussions over this one issue and how it affects the film’s artistic authenticity and scientific sophistication. That issue is “anthropomorphism,” the literary device of projecting human characteristics onto nonhuman things. The debate concerns whether the film overanthropomorphizes its subjects with poetic licence and introspective narrative — essentially, whether it or not it treats the central characters too much like humans.
This debate is loaded with scientific and cultural implications. As research continues to uncover new aspects of animal behavior, the divide between Man and beast is continuously blurred. Chimpanzees (and their criminally underplayed close biological relatives, the bonobos), with what we now know about their social organization and cognitive abilities, are at the forefront of the animal kingdom in this regard, reaching across the gap and disrupting Man’s place at the center of the universe. However, as much as our so-called progressive society welcomes these revelations, there is a point where things can be taken too far, and we can’t allow the difference between Man and animal to be expunged.
The film documents the unique and tumultuous childhood of a male chimpanzee named Oscar. Oscar’s troop resides in Taï National Park, a tropical rain forest on the Ivory Coast in West Africa. As resources become more and more scarce, the troop, under the leadership of its alpha male, Freddie, must ward off a rival group of chimps that are attempting to seize the most ecologically rich parts of their territory. The rival group mounts raids on Oscar’s troop, and eventually, Oscar’s mother is caught in the middle of one of these encounters, injured, and subsequently killed by a leopard in her weakened state.
Oscar remains a part of the troop but must act independently, learning the basics of survival by observing the behaviors of others. Eventually, Freddie starts to behave as a parent to Oscar, teaching him tool use and carrying him on his back, while still maintaining his duties as alpha male. This incident sets the footage apart from anything ever captured on film — it’s not just something that can but cut into a family-friendly docudrama; it’s a revolutionary piece of scientific research.
The story is undoubtedly touching. Seeing a hard-boiled alpha male carrying a big-eared baby chimp on his back would melt anyone’s heart. The problem with the film is that it embraces the idea of animals having emotions and thoughts so readily that it becomes deceptive. We can interpret similar behaviors of humans and animals as being closely related in purpose and function (i.e. reason and emotion), but the film’s narrative imposes vivid and distinctly human characteristics onto the animals. The film abandons all scientific restraint and skepticism in this regard.
In 1607, English explorer Andrew Battel returned home after having been imprisoned by Portuguese colonists in the Congo. Battel’s journal, Purchas his Pilgrimes, tells stories of “ape monsters” and massive, man-like beasts he encountered (gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, as we now know them). Battel insisted on calling these humanish beasts “monsters” and adamantly debased them to brutishness and savagery. Why? Great ape biologist Eric Michael Johnson argues that Battel insisted on using these words out of distress. According to Johnson, Battel was greatly unsettled by seeing something that was clearly an animal but whose anatomy and facial features bore disturbing similarity to a human’s. He says that “. . . to use this term [monster] repeatedly for describing great apes suggests that the experience was so profoundly disturbing that the only recourse was to relegate them to some narrow island of the mind where similarities to humans could be ignored.” As with the revelations of Copernicus and Galileo, Man’s place at the center of the universe, as the appointed master of Earth, was disrupted. The divide between Man and animal was being threatened, and the most emotionally satisfying solution for Battel and Western culture was to deliberately belittle these animals, to think of them as enemies, and to portray them as beastly creatures without a trace of human sophistication.
We see this same reaction in many of the early renditions of apes in fiction. The gorillas in Tarzan of the Apes are vicious and untamable, sexually ravenous and beastly in behavior. King Kong is a caricature of gorilla proportions and behaviors. Planet of the Apes portrays apes as a rival species which threatens Man’s dominance. In fiction, apes are our opposites, our chief competitors; this is a very different view from the “blood-kin” sentiments in Chimpanzee and modern science. These fictional apes are also remarkably human-like.
The gorillas in Tarzan adopt a human baby as their own, the beast in King Kong has a profound understanding of beauty and displays authentic affection for his captive, and there is a “man-ape romance” in Planet of the Apes. While apes once seemed to be our rivals in literature and popular culture, there was a sense that they were not just monsters but a unique enemy of Man, creatures that shared our capacity for love and compassion, creatures that verged on displacing us as the chief species of the world. The sense that apes are our natural rivals because they are so similar to us — that Battel undoubtedly felt upon first observing them — is very present in modern fiction.
Chimpanzee is the culmination of the very recent trend of portraying apes as almost completely human. In recent years, we’ve seen friendly and eloquent gorillas in Disney’s adaptation of Tarzan, the wise-cracking gorilla sidekick in George of the Jungle, the intelligent and docile chimpanzee of Curious George, and countless more. As we’ve come to realize our genetic kinship with apes through science, we’ve begun to treat them as such in popular fiction. Chimpanzee, however, takes this trend to a delusional level. Tim Allen’s narrative turns what could have been a spellbinding portrait of chimp social behavior into a bad talking animal movie. Over footage of Oscar experimenting with cracking open tree nuts, for instance, the narrator takes on the role of a cartoon voice actor, creating a facetious, introspective look into Oscar’s mind. This is funny and unexpected the first time and maybe the second, but it becomes relentless as the film goes on, eventually turning the film into a second-rate Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, with little restraint or taste.
I attended a lecture by Dr. Jane Goodall a few months ago at my college. As Dr. Goodall told us the story of her career, she categorized herself as one of the rogue scientists of the mid-20th century who interpreted certain animal behaviors as emotions and evidence of individual personalities, concepts that were then considered by scientists to be distinctly human. Science saw emotion and personality as Man’s defining characteristics, which could not be shared with any other species. But Goodall’s research yielded revolutionary discoveries, revealing that animal behavior and social organization are much more complex than previously thought. Jane Goodall made the question of “what is human” more difficult and fascinating for science and all of human culture.
The reason this question remains complex is because there certainly are differences between Man and animal. Chimpanzee breaks down the boundaries that need to be acknowledged, boundaries that remind us that we can never have an entirely clear understanding of nature, boundaries that prevent us from entirely trusting dangerous animals. While the film is informative and gorgeous to look at, the scientific value of the footage is trivialized by its juvenile narrative approach. I have feeling it might be the best film of the year… when watching with a pair of earplugs handy.