'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.

If the punchlines in Zookeeper feel shopworn, it’s at least partly because Hollywood’s attitudes about animals are changing. While trained animals once served mostly as sleights of hand—the impossible is real!—the days of pure stunt dogs like Beethoven’s St. Bernard have actually been over for some time. Ironically, the advent of computer animation has helped the cause: In 2002, despite its cartoonish premise, Ice Age set a precedent for thoughtfully researched wildlife characters. Cast and producers consulted with paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History, who insisted there could be no dinosaurs. The series went for it anyway in the third installment, Dawn of the Dinosaurs, but others have tried to wise up. Even Mr. Popper’s, despite its dumb “Ice Ice Baby” routine, relies on an understanding of real Gentoo penguins and their ecosystem. Jim Carrey, hounded by a local zoo authority, becomes crestfallen when he realizes the climactic conditions of his Manhattan apartment won’t accommodate the hatching of a penguin egg. So much for unconditional love.

Now even real animals are getting more entertaining. March of the Penguins was seen as a milestone in 2005 when it became a box-office hit, given its relatively straightforward depiction of emperor penguins’ migratory patterns—though at least stateside, Morgan Freeman’s smooth narration probably didn’t hurt. Also helpful, no doubt, was the revelation that penguins could be cute, even magical, on their own terms. No film in recent memory has done more for what used to be derided as “nature” footage than Planet Earth, BBC’s epic (and epically expensive) exploration of some of the world’s most precarious habitats. Though it had its precursors in art-house fair like Baraka, no one expected a cable series to turn into such a hugely profitable Blu-ray phenomenon. Never before have people gotten so excited about watching tree frogs on their couches. That, along with the lame Adam Sandler guest spot, makes Zookeeper look downright anachronistic.

Bazin, who himself loved parrots, saw the beginnings of this movement toward eco-aware depictions of animals. Back in the ‘50s, he praised the groundbreaking Italian neorealist film Umberto D., about a destitute man who befriends a dog, saying, “I have no hesitation in stating that the cinema has rarely gone such a long way toward making us aware of what it is to be a man. (And also, for that matter, of what it is to be a dog.)” Project Nim is a harsher reminder of that synergistic relationship. After Nim Chimpsky was discarded by his test family, he became the victim of a series of unfortunate circumstances, including a stay at a research lab and some time smoking weed with a Deadhead. But even the filmmakers are not above drumming up a little human sympathy for his situation—in this case, by showing him on the poster in his cute red sweater, looking like a toddler. As the despondent gorilla in Zookeeper says, “I guess that’s what all humans do—they lie.” Sure, but movies, too.


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