Me Tarzan, you un-degreed quasi-anthropologist

T he fact that Professor Louis Leakey doesn’t appear in this documentary seems quite an oversight; he’s the one who introduced Jane Goodall to chimpanzees. I don’t want to take anything away from primatologist Jane Goodall, but making a 90-minute film about Jane without once showing us Louis Leakey is like making a 90-minute documentary about Joe Montana and never once showing a picture of Bill Walsh. I’m not sure you’re doing the subject justice, Brett Morgen.

Jane Goodall never earned an undergraduate college degree. That hardly seems the most important detail in the life of Jane except for background consideration: the most notable primatologist in the world (to white people) became so without taking a single college course. –She did earn a PhD later in life— Jane Goodall is the alpha for following your dreams. As a kid, she grew up on a London estate reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and dreaming of apes. As an adult, it just so happens that noted archaeologist Louis Leakey needed an assistant who didn’t know jack, so he chose this jill – or Jane as the case may be – to go study chimps. And this is the footage.

Gambe, Tanzania was the hip hangout for the love apes of the 1960s. It’s great seeing all the old film; Gambe is just soooooo commercial now, huh? Day after day, Jane went outside and watched chimpanzees from a bush or a tree. The rules stated that Jane couldn’t be by herself, so for the first year, her mother joined her, probably so she could ask Jane on a daily basis when she was going to settle down, meet a nice tailless primate, and give her some grandchildren? Seriously, your daughter wins the relocation to Africa lottery, but the rules state she’s got to take somebody with her. As a parent, do you bite the bullet?  That’s some serious love.  It takes forever for Jane to gain some trust among the beasts, but finally it comes in the form of “Dude, is that a banana in your pouch or are you just happy to see me?”

The following summer, mom is traded back to the London Blitz for cameraman Baron Hugo von Lawick and a reporter to be named later.  The Baron goes by “Hugo” in the film and resembles one of the Beach Boys. He covers all the banana raids on their camp, which are probably legendary in chimp circles. As Hugo and Jane are, apparently, the only two white people in Tanzania, it was probably only natural that they hook up, this being a movie and all.  Before long, Jane has a primate of her own to study.

I thought I was mishearing “Graham,” but they actually named the child, “Grub.” It says so on documents. Oh, I see, he was named Hugo after his father, you just called him, “Grub.” I’m not sure that’s any better. What did you turn down? “Parasite?” “Aphid?” “Larva?” My favorite part of the film comes when young Grub imitates the animals of the Serengeti. It’s pretty cool seeing a boy who really has a zebra or hyena down pat. Despite the influence of Fisher-Price toys, most kids can’t even do justice to a cow.

Now, that all said, I cannot possibly recommend a film where the best thing in it is a parlor trick. I have a great deal of respect for Jane Goodall, and her story is definitely a feel-Goodall one, but that’s kinda it. In the 1960s, we might have been amazed that chimps are tool users. And perhaps one day in the foreseeable future, we will again find this material unique and controversial after Republicans have eliminated all science from American education. Right now, however, chimps and humans share common ancestors; watching chimps use tools didn’t surprise me when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and still doesn’t today. I’ll put it this way: Jane Goodall is a worthy documentary subject, just probably not a great one.

I live with the apes every day:
To learn what I can of their way
An outbreak of flu
And flinging of poo
I have got to flee the U.K.

Rated PG, 90 Minutes
Director: Brett Morgen
Writer: Brett Morgen
Genre: If I could walk with the animals
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: Chimps
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: Louis Leakey

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