This review was originally published on January 27, 2011
Is there anything cuter than a baby chimpanzee wearing clothes? How about a baby chimpanzee smoking joints, riding in wheelbarrows, and wiping himself after he learns to use the potty? But sometimes cuteness comes at a price, and in Nim’s case the price is devastating.
Project Nim follows the story of a baby chimpanzee named Nim who is stolen from his mother and home in a chimpanzee sanctuary and moved to the East coast to be raised as a human child. Dr. Herb Terrace bought Nim to experiment with language acquisition in cross-species. The plan: to teach Nim sign language and document whether or not he could learn to form complete sentences that express his feelings. But, moving from constructed family to constructed family, Nim never gets to live the life of a human child. Because he’s a chimpanzee! Because of Dr. Terrace’s ignorance about chimp behavior, Nim is destined to live the life of a transient, moving through various situations, each sadder than the next.
The film follows the same format as director James Marsh’s last film, the much-loved Man on Wire. Meaning, Marsh sticks to the story at hand. Rather than relying on experts and outside opinions, Project Nim is completely comprised of interviews with those who had direct, significant contact with Nim. And despite their best intentions, every human involved in Nim’s life contributed to his ill treatment. The film takes a fairly clear stand on the nature vs. nurture debate that these scientists were exploring. No matter how many human behaviors Nim is taught, his chimp side continually takes over, causing him to be as violent and unpredictable as a wild animal. Because chimpanzees are wild animals!
Told through interviews, archival footage, and photography, Marsh constructs Nim’s life in detail without overbearing preachiness. The film argues that there is a human desire to force nature to conform and evolve to our limited understanding, and viewers are asked to question the inception of that desire and its effects.
Occasional inclusions of some cheesy reenactments and the distracting sound mixing (will someone please get these lip-smacking people a glass of water?) cause me to conclude that this film is imperfect. Some characters feel a little unnecessarily villainized when it seems possible that they may once have had good intentions. But, overall, Project Nim is an intense, emotional ride that will lead you to question your own relationship to the animal kingdom.