Review by RCR Entertainment Reporter, B. W. Falvey follow him on Twitter
The story of Jane Goodall’s life is one of tremendous exploration as well as intensely personal observation. The film recounts both the highs and lows of Goodall’s career, told through her own perspective of the time she spent in Africa observing chimpanzees in the forest, and the journey that those initial trips took her on for the rest of her life. During her expeditions, she was accompanied by Baron Hugo van Lawick, a wildlife cinematographer, and filmmaker of incomparable talent. Through Hugo’s camera, we see not only the story of the chimps, but also the story of Goodall herself. Together, they changed the public face of exploratory research, and wildlife conservation became a topic of public discussion in a way that transcended popular culture.
Jane chronicles Goodall from her first journey through her later trips to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. There, she observed the chimpanzees that would undoubtedly shape not only Jane’s career and Hugo’s, but also their experiences as human beings creating a family together. The documentary follows Goodall’s experience from her time as a naïve young student, through motherhood, the end of her marriage, and her later career. From their initial contact with the chimps to the Serengeti and back again, the film is a feast of brilliantly shot wildlife footage as well as shots that demonstrate to the audience the clear passion that Hugo had for Goodall. This passion, which blossoms through their initial expedition, and through their son’s birth, reflects Goodall’s own passion for the chimpanzees who she observed and wrote about throughout her life.
During key moments of the footage, director Brett Morgen takes his audience to present day, where we find Jane recounting her own story. She serves as the narrator throughout the piece, talking about the key points, and giving insight into the questions that naturally present themselves through the telling of her life. Her narration throughout is consistent and shines a spotlight on particular areas the footage simply can’t cover, but her humor and grace throughout the narration helps to keep the film focused.
The spectacle, however, is in the telling of this story via Hugo van Lawick’s masterful cinematography. From his striking shots of Goodall traversing the forests of Tanzania alone to his masterful framing of the Serengeti in Africa, no detail is left out of a single frame of footage. At times, when the chimps revert to their primal nature, the camerawork captures the mayhem with a chaotic, almost frantic movement that demonstrates the very real danger the pair faced. The real grace in this footage lies in the intimate moments in which we’re shown Goodall interacting and even playing with her chimp friends. It is impossible not to be mesmerized by this film, and by Goodall’s patience and determination to be first accepted by the chimps, and then to befriend them. Aside from the narration, this footage would work on its own, conveying the story visually, and would still be fantastic to observe.
The cast of characters is large and diverse, ranging from our three principal humans, Jane, Hugo, and their son Grub (Hugo Eric Louis), to the many chimps including David Greybeard, Flo, Goliath, Mr. McGregor, and even two of Flo’s many children, Fifi & Flint. The story of their lives is both beautiful to observe and tragic, showcasing the very real nature of life and death in the forests of Gombe.
Near the end of the film, the story briefly takes turns Jane’s efforts on the part of global conservation, which is the area from which most people will recognize her. For at least the last 30 years, Goodall has dedicated her life to spreading her message of wildlife conservation to the world with a particular focus on educating future generations. My first contact with Goodall stems from my third-grade teacher’s experience in the Galapagos Islands and the San Diego Zoo working with Lemurs every summer. Part of the fun of going to Mrs. Cameron’s class was hearing her stories, and having her pass those memories onto us as students.
While National Geographic has accomplished something spectacular in restoring this footage, it’s important to note that the sequence of events in the film does not exactly match up with the timeline of the expeditions in the lives of both Jane and Hugo. Many early details are so quickly passed over, and while Jane’s career began in Africa in 1957, and her observations on chimps began in 1960, Hugo actually didn’t arrive in Africa until 1962. If you’re watching the film and you understand this fact, then you will find that the genius of the narration lies in its ability to convince the audience that the events are happening on screen in the order they occurred in real life. The effect is a bit distracting, though visually and sequentially, it works well. We see Goodall as an outsider slowly gaining the chimps trust, though by the time van Lawick arrived, she had already made contact. I sincerely feel that fleshing out Goodall’s earlier career, as well as van Lawick’s, would have greatly benefitted this film, and given the audience a clearer picture of their journeys immediately before this footage was shot. We are given inklings of information before the footage begins, but that information is not revisited or explained in depth, and is simply pasted over as we move forward with other footage.
Another choice that I feel is confusing is the use of Hugo’s identical footage multiple times through the film, rather than using completely different footage for each of those segments. While at the end, there’s definitely a sense that we’re wrapping up this story and reviewing what we’ve already seen, there is another moment in which they discuss van Lawick where they reuse some of his Serengeti footage, which took me out of that footage a bit. I realized that I had seen the shot before, and while it was stunning, it was simply repeated. His footage is so impressive, that I feel the need to dig in and find more of his films now, and I hope to be able to. This movie went by so quickly for me, that I almost don’t understand why more footage wasn’t utilized. Normally, there would be a counter argument about the rights to this film footage, but we’re talking about the National Geographic in this particular case. They certainly seem to tip their hand by discussing how Hugo’s career went on through his death in 2002, and I feel that the audience could have benefitted from seeing more of that illustrious career showcased to bookend his story in this film.
All gripes aside, animal lovers or frequent viewers of Planet Earth will find in this film a delightful exhibition of Jane Goodall’s long career, with expert narration by Jane that is both witty and cutting. At the same time, documentary enthusiasts will find a film that concisely sums up Goodall’s career, from Jane’s time with her primate friends to the struggles faced upon returning home in an attempt to be taken seriously as a scientist while being written off as an attractive young woman. Time spent on screen showing moments of tenderness between Goodall and the chimps are wonderful, and von Lawick’s cinematography prowess cannot be overstated. This film will probably stand as the definitive documentary about Goodall, and I know of no finer film illustrating the earlier part of her long career. The fact that this footage was recovered in 2014, long after National Geographic thought it was lost, showcases their supreme ability to produce superb content for animal enthusiasts. I can only hope that NatGeo begins work on more restorations for the future.
Jane Opens on October 20th 2017 in theaters
Directed by Brett Morgen
National Geographic Films
Drawing from over 100 hours of footage shot in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park in the 1960s, director Brett Morgen tells the story of JANE, a woman whose chimpanzee research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. Set to a score from composer Philip Glass, the film offers a portrait of Jane Goodall — a trailblazer who defied the odds to become one of the world’s most admired conservationists.
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About National Geographic
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