2011-07-29 / Entertainment/Lifestyles

MovieScope

‘Project Nim’ – Monkey Business
By Robert Snyder

Talking animals. A Hollywood mainstay from Mickey Mouse to Dr. Doolittle to the recent Kevin James comedy, “Zookeeper.”

However, in the hippie-dippie ’70s, a research group actually tried to make a monkey talk to humans. The chimpanzee is named, “Nim Chimpsky,” a dig at linguist Noam Chomsky, a non-believer in animals’ capacity for human conversation. As depicted in the documentary, “Project Nim,” the chimp is taught some 150 signs of English-language words.

A miracle? Maybe.

But, the film directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) powerfully shows the downside to this particular animal experimentation: Humans.

The chief villain here is Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace. In fact, he’s so vile that in present-day interviews, he seems oblivious to the intense abuse he caused this poor chimp.

First, Nim is dragged away from his screaming mother in an Oklahoma facility. Then, he lives a pampered life in Upper West Side Manhattan, considered one of seven kids of the LaFarge family (mom Stephanie even breastfeeds him). Next, it’s to a pastoral estate in Riverdale, where the signing really sinks in.

Suddenly, Terrace decides the experiment isn’t working and pulls the plug (“Nim can’t talk. He’s simply a brilliant beggar.”). Things go downhill until, horror of horrors, Nim ends up in a sinister site for medical experimentation.

He is rescued somewhat in the end, landing in a Texas farm for abused animals.

Throughout the film, various caregivers are shown teary-eyed with guilt about the Dickensian life of their beloved monkey, even two woman with whom Nim had violent confrontations.

Terrace remains dry-eyed and clinical. A true professional.

I wonder what Nim would have said about that.

Go see “Project Nim.” It’s a tear-jerker.

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