ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Most Fridays, University of Michigan anthropologist John Mitani is in Ann Arbor lecturing to the 200 or so undergraduates signed up for Introduction to Biological Anthropology.
But last Friday, Mitani and his wife Sally were in Orlando, walking down the red carpet at the world premiere of the new Disneynature movie "Chimpanzee."
Mitani served as a scientific consultant to the film, which features footage of the chimpanzees he has been studying in Africa for nearly 20 years. The movie, shot entirely in the wild, opens April 20 in theaters nationwide.
"The chimpanzees that I study are a large troop, about 180 strong, and with so many males, they frequently interact aggressively with other chimpanzees who live in neighboring groups," Mitani said.
Filmed over a three-year period by the team behind Disneynature's film "Earth," the movie "Chimpanzee" introduces Oscar, a young chimpanzee who is left to fend for himself with a little help from an unexpected ally. Freddy, the alpha male of Oscar's group, adopts the helpless infant, which is a rare occurrence that's never before been caught on film.
"Orphaned infants are often adopted by older siblings, or by other members in their groups," Mitani said. "But Freddy has no relationship that we know of to Oscar. That's the mystery."
Watching the movie, and watching the chimps in the wild, it's nearly impossible not to attribute human emotions and motives to the animals, he said.
"Investigating their behavior may help us to understand what makes humans unique," Mitani said.
As pressure on the habitats of the chimpanzees increase, Mitani's hope is that "Chimpanzee" will help sensitize the public to the importance of preserving habitats for all wild chimpanzees.