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Project Nim


Stars: Chimpanzee Nim and assorted humans

Director: James Marsh

Walt Disney, Looney Tunes and their animator ilk have a great deal to answer for, since they are responsible for the undeserved tsunami of anthropomorphism that has transformed almost the entire animal kingdom from mice and dinosaurs to lisping cats, ducks and French-accented skunks into humanised creatures given to wearing human clothes and speaking with a surprising variety of accents. Result – too often we attribute human traits to animals that neither possess them nor, most probably, would welcome them.

All of which accounts in large measure to my ultimate lack of surprise at the final outcome of this fascinating documentary about an academic American experiment in the 1970s to raise a chimpanzee like a human child and teach the ape to learn to communicate with language as a result.

The experimenters’ own attitude seems to be summed up when one of them says, “We enjoyed just letting him hang out and see where it went”.

On the credit side director Marsh (Oscar winner for Man on a Wire) controls his fascinating documentary very well, choosing and using to-camera interviewees very effectively. Watching chimpanzee Nim react to his human handlers/surrogate parents is extraordinary, often funny but, in the end, sometimes unpleasantly distressing and exploitative. And the sight of Nim sharing a toke with one of his human exploiters is deeply depressing.

I still can’t quite make up my mind whether the fact that the film is released in the United Kingdom the same week as Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exploitative or clever marketing (or both).

Alan Frank

USA/UK 2011. UK Distributor: Icon. Colour/black and white.
99 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 1, Swearing 0.

Review date: 10 Aug 2011