Project Nim Directed by: James Marsh Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins Rating: PG-13 Release Date: July 8, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: This documentary tells the life story of a chimpanzee named Nim, who is raised by human beings and taught American sign language.
WHO'S IT FOR?: Project Nim is definitely for fans of good documentaries, especially for anyone who liked Marsh's previous Man on Wire. Non-doc fans will enjoy this movie for its intricate story alone.
On the outside, Project Nim is a compelling story about a special chimp. This one knows American sign language, and is raised more like a human being than any creature in a zoo. He lives in different places, and has many different friends. Some of them are nicer to him than others. Some of them he tries to kill, and some of them he can only love. Like a lot of human beings, he likes cats.
But once we dive deep into the character list of Project Nim, we understand that it's equally about his handlers, who make for a large dysfunctional family of caretakers. These true characters bring in their own unique backgrounds which influence they way they handle Nim. Since this project happened in the 1970's, some of them are influenced more by their hippie impulses than others. For example, when Nim is just a baby, his first "mother" Stephanie raises him in a completely free household. This allows the chimp to do whatever he pleases, making him more like a baby than a pet. Later in Nim's life, he's under the care of hilarious Grateful Dead devotee Bob, who raises him like a friend, which includes sharing marijuana joints, etc. As we get to know the many people who handled Nim in his life, we understand more fully the chimp's character, and even more passionately, the animal's heart.
Project Nim involves its audience thoroughly in the events of this wild story with the help of many different visual forms. On top of the standard interviews, the documentary enlivens its animal tale with detailed reenactments, which are mixed nicely with real footage from the era, and capture Nim and his handlers acting their most natural. For director Marsh, the footage from this experiment must've been a gold mine for telling the story. With the beauty of such private footage and even the quality of the photos, such material holds the same value for the audience.
From the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, Project Nim is a thoroughly thought-provoking film with many issues on its mind - nature vs. nurture, the proper treatment of animals, evolution, adolescence, the 70's, etc. And it's all told in a form that feels similar to any special animal's narrative in a fictional story - the creature is shaped by the many major influences they meet along the way, in a journey that has dramatic downers just as much as truly touching moments. Take away the brimming intelligence of this movie, and this story could be packaged like any other straight-to-DVD animal flick. Just imagine ... simply title it "Nim," hire Rob Lowe to play Dr. Ross, and use a tagline like "He's not just a chimp off the old block."
Whether it can sell itself to audiences based on monkeys-in-sweaters alone or not, Project Nim does provide audience the fascinating full story of an organism who can easily shed light on our connection to our possible fore-chimps. Learning about Nim can be a very reflective experience, as we humans can see our own growing up paralleled to the stages of this chimp's life. Soon into the documentary's tale, the story of Nim becomes much more complicated than just a scientific experiment - it truly becomes something big that's all about us.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10