'Zookeeper,' 'Project Nim,' and the New Animal Realism

Even as science-informed depictions of wildlife come into vogue, cinema and society still can't resist dressing animals like humans

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Columbia Pictures

Zookeeper and Project Nim are two very different animal movies. In the former, an Adam Sandler-produced comedy starring Kevin James, a zoo’s animals reveal their ability to talk in order to help their titular caretaker win the woman of his dreams. In the process, he learns that his caged friends really like takeout. Nim, a more sobering documentary, follows the life of a chimp who unwittingly becomes the center of an experiment in using language with primates. Needless to say, things don't end well for the chimp.

But both movies (which were released this past weekend) say a lot about how we look at animals onscreen—and how, when we do, we rarely see them for what they actually are. One of Nim’s interview subjects says of the research project, “We exploited his human-like nature without regard for his chimpanzee nature.” The same might be said for the filmmakers behind Zookeeper, which transforms its animals into miming frat buddies for Kevin James’s hopeless romantic adventure. At night, they stage a stump meeting about his pursuit. The most talented monkey this side of Batman Returns controls access to the premises. And in what might be the pivotal scene, James’s character, Griffin, takes a moody gorilla named Bernie on a trip to T.G.I. Friday's, during which they dance to Flo Rida’s “Low,” play Foosball, and ogle cute girls. Bernie calls it “more than I could ever ask for.”

Of course, Zookeeper doesn’t aim for realism. It gives away its intentions in the first scene, when Griffin and his would-be bride, played by Leslie Bibb, ride a horse across a white beach during sunset, a fairy-tale image that has persisted from 1953’s White Mane to Fabio. That’s not the only thing fantastical about the movie; Griffin is referred to as the “Hippo Whisperer” for his uncanny ability to communicate with animals, though it’s the animals that do most of the talking: lions bickering about psychoanalysis, a monkey bragging about his opposable thumbs and thick hair. In the happy-ending credits, they all sing along to the schmaltz ‘70s classic-rock vibes of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” Harmony with Mother Nature, at last.

You can find animal tricks everywhere in this year’s summer-movie season, from the happy-feet-dancing birds of Mr. Popper’s Penguins to the karate-choppin' animated beasts of Kung Fu Panda 2. But Zookeeper harks back to an older sort of anthropomorphism. The animals pantomime their voice actors’ words through CGI, recalling those iconically cheesy ‘90s “pet” movies like Homeward Bound. The origins go back further in a heroic set piece referencing King Kong, in which Bernie the gorilla pulls Griffin to the top of a city bridge. In his meaner moments, the same gorilla is reminiscent of the freakishly violent puppet-apes from 1995’s Congo.

Why does Hollywood make animals act like humans? As The Atlantic's James Parker has pointed out, the answers lie in philosophy. The French film critic André Bazin wrote of our relationship to onscreen animals as an "ontological otherness"—a connection with an outside world that reminds us of ourselves—or what’s also been called the “human gaze” by animal ethicist Randy Malamud. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “animals doing silly things for the audience’s amusement—things they don’t usually do, and have no reason to do,” Malamud argues. When we see Free Willy’s whale flip through the sky, it’s not for his entertainment so much as ours. The same is true of a cute YouTube video of a hamster eating broccoli or a LOLcat pleading for a cheeseburger, an amusingly discomfiting image. It’s also funny to see Zookeeper’s animals talking on a cell phone—or, at least, it’s supposed to be.

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Paul Schrodt is a web editor at Esquire. He has written for The Daily Beast, nymag.com, The Awl, and others.

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