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Goodall hopes 'Chimpanzee' will get today's distracted kids in touch with nature

TORONTO – Renowned anthropologist Jane Goodall frets that video games and television are distracting kids from the natural world and hopes the new film “Chimpanzee” will give them a better understanding of life in the wild.

“I think actually what children are lacking is contact with nature…. We didn’t have these films when I was young…. By and large there was no television and that certainly didn’t harm me,” Goodall said in a recent interview.

“Films like this, yes, they’re great compared to the video games, which mostly are absolutely terrible.”

Although Goodall, 78, was not involved with the making of Disneynature’s “Chimpanzee,” she has given her stamp of approval to the film, about a young primate named Oscar growing up in the African forest.

A portion of first-week ticket sales will go to the Jane Goodall Institute.

Disney, of course, is no stranger to wildlife movies. The studio’s “true-life adventure” tales — produced between 1948 and 1960 — were a Sunday-night staple for a generation of youngsters. Disneynature was launched in 2008 and previous titles have included “Earth,” “Oceans” and “African Cats.”

“Chimpanzee,” which opened the TIFF Kids International Film Festival last week and will be released in theatres Friday, is refreshingly unadorned by the 3D technology that pervades most of today’s children’s entertainment. Directed by Alastair Fothergill (“African Cats” and “Earth”) and Mark Linfield (“Earth”), it offers up gorgeous African panoramas and breathtaking access to the daily life of little Oscar and his family.

Viewers see the baby chimp being groomed and fed by his mother; he plays in the trees; he rides on her back; and he watches as she cracks nuts for him. Through narration from “Home Improvement” star Tim Allen, the audience also learns about the dangers to Oscar and his family, including a rival band of chimps.

The initial plan for “Chimpanzee,” Goodall explains, was to watch Oscar as he bonded with his community. However, midway through the film, the young chimp’s life takes a shocking turn, sending the “plot” in an entirely different direction.

“I think the amazing thing about this film is … because of the characters in it and the events that happen, it might have been scripted by somebody doing a chimpanzee (version of) ‘Bambi,'” said Goodall.

That “Chimpanzee” had the power to amaze Goodall is a true testament to the film. She has, after all, been working with the creatures for over 50 years, conducting groundbreaking research at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Research Center.

These days, Goodall is so busy with speaking engagements that she only gets back to the sanctuary for a few days a year, noting she won’t go unless she gets to spend at least one day “alone in the forest.”

Goodall says she’s familiar with the difficult terrain depicted in “Chimpanzee,” and marvels at the footage the crew was able to capture. Indeed, the final credits include outtakes of crew members swatting away swarms of flies and being pelted with rain.

When talking about her early influences, Goodall recalls being struck by the stories of Tarzan (she was devastated when he ran off with “that other Jane”). She’s hoping young filmgoers will embrace the story of Oscar and be inspired to find out more about chimpanzees and their plight.

“This film hopefully will really raise a banner, not about the dangers facing the chimps but about how amazing they are, how like us they are,” she said.

“I hope that they’ll understand more about the division between us and the rest of the animal kingdom. I know they’ll have a much better understanding of what it means to be a chimp and life in the wild and its difficulties — and its fun.”