Producer of Disney's 'The Lion King' continues trek into nature with 'Chimpanzee'

It’s a long way from the comforts of Burbank to the wilds of the remote Ivory Coast in Africa, and Don Hahn, executive producer of Disneynature’s new film, “Chimpanzee,” laughs at the comparison. “Luckily for me, I got to stay home and sit in warm edit suites right here in Burbank looking at this amazing footage our filmmakers shot,” says the congenial producer.

It wasn’t that he preferred to be an armchair traveler, it’s also a matter of practicality. “Chimpanzee” follows the story of an amazing and very lucky infant chimpanzee named Oscar and his family group. It was shot in the remote Taï Forest, situated 60 miles inland. “I would have only been in the way. These are filmmakers that have spent years in treacherous and difficult territory, “ says Hahn. “You only want the people who really need to be there.”

Shooting began on “Chimpanzee” almost four years ago, while the country was still fighting a vicious and bloody civil war. “It’s 10 hours from the largest city by car and then another two hours by foot just to get to the base camp, and then every day the chimps can travel up to 4 miles a day looking for food, so the crew had to set off very early in the morning just to find our stars. Some days you might get 30 seconds of footage and other days you might be lucky to get three minutes,” says Hahn.

“Chimpanzee” is the fourth movie to be released under the newly launched Disneynature brand (previous films were “Earth,” “Oceans” and “African Cats”). Hahn, who has acted as executive producer on all titles, admits he never thought he would now be considered a wildlife expert. “My background is really in animation, but when Disney decided to start making these films they didn’t want them to be straight-out documentaries. They needed to tell a story, so that’s how I got involved,” he says. “Its been an amazing challenge, to take up to 300 hours of footage and shape them into a 90-minute film.”

Hahn was born in Chicago but moved to Bellflower with his family when he was 3, then landed in Burbank as a teenager, attending North Hollywood High School. He has worked at the Disney studios for 35 years. His wife, Denise Hahn, also worked for Disney as an artist. They live in Pasadena with their 20-year-old daughter. “This is really our community. So many of us that work at Disney live and work here. I can go to lunch at Mo’s in Toluca Lake and run into other writers and producers. Its like our local commissary,” he says.

Working at Disney was a dream come true for Hahn. “Being a kid in postwar L.A. was a magical time. I started at the same time that Tim Burton started there,” he says. “For us it was a magical place. As Burbank kids we would peek over the fence to see who is in there and wonder whether one day we would work there.”

Hahn began his career in animation working for Disney legend Wolfgang Reitherman as an assistant director on “The Fox and the Hound” in 1981. He went on to work on such Disney titles as “Pete’s Dragon” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” He then became the producer of the benchmark “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991 which signaled the renaissance of Disney animation. The film made him the first producer in Hollywood to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for an animated film. Then came his biggest hit, “The Lion King”.

“At the time no one thought it would be a success, because it was so different from everything else we were doing,” he recalls. “We were doing fairy-tale musicals, and this is one with no humans, set in an African savanna with music by Elton John. It was hard to get people to work on it — they all wanted to work on ‘Pocahontas,’ which they thought would be the next big ‘princess’ hit, but the people we did get on ‘The Lion King’ were passionate and dedicated, and the rest is history.”

Hahn feels that moving on to documenting real wildlife is a natural progression for the studio. “Walt Disney started sending cameras out to capture the world as early as the 1940s and 1950s but they used some questionable staged practices back then. We felt it was important to relaunch the brand with updated ethics and aesthetics and the best filmmakers we could find,” he says.

“Chimpanzee” was directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, longtime nature filmmakers who also worked on “Frozen Planet,” currently screening on the Discovery Channel. Legendary chimpanzee expert Jane Goodhall also consulted on the film.

The remarkable journey that the young chimp Oscar takes in the film is not only tailor-made for a heroic Disney tale, but also marks an important scientific landmark when he is taken under the care of an alpha male in the group. “This is a chimpanzee that normally would have had no hope in the wild but survived. Jane Goodhall said in all her years of study, she had only seen it happen once,” says Hahn.

Of course,” Chimpanzee,” with its homey narration by Tim Allen, glosses over the enormous dangers and challenges chimpanzees face in the wild. Chimpanzee populations have drastically diminished in the last few decades with habitat loss, and they are also regularly hunted for bush meat. “We are in the entertainment business so we want audiences to be entertained and not feel preached to, but our opening week campaign is all about saving the chimps and is a way for us to give back financially to help preserve habitat,” he says.

When “Chimpanzee” opens on April 20, a portion of the proceeds from the first week’s box office will go to the Jane Goodhall Institute. “We also have a lot of educational tools available for schools and anyone who is interested in finding out more,” he says.

Hahn will be working on more Disneynature projects to be announced later this year. His next production will be Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” for October release, a stop-motion homage to Burton’s childhood in Burbank and the love he had for his first dog. “This is a really personal film for Tim. He grew up in Burbank and it make it a very home spun movie for all of us,” says Hahn. “It is set in an imaginary Burbank. Not literally, more like ‘Burbank meets Transylvania,’ but local audiences will definitely find it very familiar.”

KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and pop culture for Marquee. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World