Chimp Empire Review 2023 Tv Show Series Cast Crew Online
For those who are not tired of the machinations and manoeuvrings at the heart of Waystar Royco, the Ngogo rainforest and its Chimp Empire have plenty to offer in the way of power struggles and inter-familial conflict. Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali narrates this saga of two rival chimp troops in Uganda, known as the Centrallers and the Westerners. Over four beautifully filmed and dramatically charged episodes, we follow the two troops’ never-ending battle for territory, as well as exploring the complex personal relationships within the groups themselves.
It is directed by James Reed, who won an Oscar for the underwater weepie My Octopus Friend. Reed has spent time with the Ngogo chimps before, for the 2017 film Rise of the Warrior Apes, but that was before they split off into two rival groups. Now, the dangers are more grave, and the lower-stakes storylines heaving with portent. The Central group, the largest ever recorded, has the ageing Jackson as its alpha, though there are younger, hungrier chimps biding their time, waiting for any weaknesses to make themselves apparent.
Like most wildlife documentaries with an anthropomorphic leaning, it presses human-like storylines on to these wild animals, to the soundtrack of a sweeping score; it gets away with it by arguing that chimps are our closest animal relatives. (There is an excellent, very old episode of the podcast Radiolab, called Animal Minds, that carefully examines the idea that animals can experience human-like emotions, and it is well worth revisiting.) But whether you agree with a narrative that suggests, for example, that a chimp’s “presence” may linger long after his death, or not, these storylines are effortlessly compelling and told with grace.
The headline draw is the battle for power. Jackson is protected by an enormous enforcer called Miles, who is enough of a menace to put off any internal threats, such as the smart and confident young pretender Abrams. For now. When the Westerners enter the picture, staking their own claims for territory, it becomes a grand portrait of turf war, with peril lurking on every boundary.
But it is also about the smaller stuff, too. Outsider Gus is a loner struggling to find his place within the social dynamic of the group, despite the regular grooming he offers to those with more status than him. Christine has a young baby, though she will not be given a name until she is a year old, as baby chimps are particularly vulnerable in their first year of life. The baby’s older sister, Nadine, is not getting enough attention from Christine. Is this jealousy? Will the siblings ever be capable of bonding? And will the baby live long enough to be given a name?
There are moments that are truly astonishing. The film-makers and scientists were embedded with the chimps for more than a year, and they capture moments of life and death with what appears to be great intimacy. The battles, when they inevitably come, are a frenzy of noise and brutality. The series is fairly squeamish about showing the actual violence of the groups, but then again, at one point, Ali has to say: “His face is infected by parasites. He needs help,” so it isn’t exactly dainty, either. When the chimps eat meat, including monkeys, it is a gruesome and fraught process. One of the key components of social relationships between chimps is grooming, ie picking bugs off each other’s bodies and eating them, so there’s that, too. If only human relationships were so simple.
It is Succession-like, then, and its betrayals and backstabbing and sagas of familial love and rejection lend it a Shakespearean feel, but it is also EastEnders-ish, at times; there is a sense that these chimps are only one grunt away from shouting: “Leave it, he’s not worth it, we’ve all had a few [figs].” By humanising their stories, there is a plea for empathy, understanding, and support, of course, for this horribly endangered species. My only complaint is that there is an odd coyness to this aspect of Chimp Empire, which adds a brief note, at the end of the series, noting that chimpanzees are endangered “due to habitat loss, hunting and disease”. It is a paltry concession. You want the film to shout about it. It seems the least that it can do.
Still, perhaps viewers will be led there independently, thanks to the magnificent storytelling. This is masterfully done, as you would expect from a film-maker of Reed’s calibre and experience, and Ali gives it a wonderful narrative heft. By the end, as the wheels turn on this ongoing tribal war, and the chimps’ strengths and weaknesses dictate their positions in the hierarchy, it is impossible not to be in thrall to the Ngogo and its mighty inhabitants.