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Monkey business at Sundance

Posted 8:45am on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

In 1974, a Columbia University linguist named Herb Terrace launched an experiment involving a baby chimpanzee named Nim. The chimp would be raised among humans in New York City, treated not like an animal but as any member of the family, and taught sign language. The idea was to see if these intelligent creatures could eventually master human communication.

What followed was a long, winding saga that eventually landed Nim, seething, violent and abandoned, in the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, an animal preserve in Murchison, Texas.

These are the facts behind James Marsh’s accomplished new documentary Project Nim, which earned a warm reception during its press screening on Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival. Much as he did with his Oscar-winning Man on Wire, a look at Philippe Petit’s famous high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers, Marsh combines archival footage, dreamy-looking dramatic recreations, and elegantly filmed interviews with all the participants; this is one of those documentaries with the style and panache of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet if Man on Wire ultimately proved a strange, spooky meditation on the cultural significance of the now-fallen Twin Towers, Project Nim is, well, really just a story about a chimp. A fascinating story, don’t get me wrong, one that explores the cruel and cavalier ways humans so often look upon animals, and the intelligence and perceptiveness with which animals so often look upon the world. The movie is engrossing from first moment to last, and at points even a little scary (Nim has very sharp teeth, and he bites). It’s just never quite feels profound or universally resonant in the way I think Marsh was hoping for.

You’ll get a chance to decide for yourself soon enough: HBO Films acquired the film just before the festival started, and it’s expected to air there, so it should turn up on the network’s excellent documentary series later this year.

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