Falling in Love With ‘Jane’

A fawning documentary gives us an uncritical look at a remarkable icon.

Courtesy of National Geographic Studios

Courtesy of National Geographic Studios

If it seems as though Jane Goodall has always been out there, doing her thing with chimpanzees, she pretty much has: Since 1960, she has been either in Africa studying apes or traveling the world talking about them. She’s like a lighthouse that’s constantly on, even if you’re not always thinking about it. Famous for most of that time, she doesn’t need another documentary about her, but Jane (2017 Best Documentary winner from the Broadcast Film Critics Association) is a fascinating treat. It re-purposes a batch of 1960s footage long considered lost, and looks back from Goodall’s current perspective at age 83.

The misplaced footage was originally shot by Hugo van Lawick, a wildlife photographer assigned by National Geographic to document Goodall’s work at her compound on the Gombe Stream in 1963. The early part of Jane uses some of this gorgeous footage to illustrate the story of Goodall’s first experiences with the chimps (a sort of dramatic re-creation). We only learn later that it was shot by van Lawick and that he and Goodall subsequently married; this explains why the treatment of Goodall is so rapturous—it’s one of those classic examples of a filmmaker falling for his subject through the lens.

Jane director Brett Morgen (who did the classic Hollywood documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture about notorious producer Robert Evans) is equally smitten. This isn’t a probing, critical piece of journalism—for one thing, as with so many documentaries, there’s too much music, although the Philip Glass score is compelling in its own right. In her time, Goodall has been periodically knocked for anthropomorphizing her animal subjects, and for the scientifically questionable practice of setting up feeding stations at Gombe, but Morgen is content to observe these things without pressing Goodall about them. This film is a tribute to a remarkable person, and Goodall is that.

The biographical sketching is well done, including excerpts from letters that show young Jane to be an unabashedly romantic soul: “The hills and forests are my home,” she writes, reveling in her own hero’s journey. She’d been dreaming of Africa since reading Tarzan books in childhood, and her enthusiasm (she had no university degree before she began her study) may have helped her establish closeness with the historically shy apes. She observed things no outsider had before, reporting to the world that chimpanzees made tools and killed other animals for meat, among other things. But her early romanticism was tempered by the discovery that chimps could be just as warlike as their human cousins, which we witness in footage that resembles violent outtakes from the Planet of the Apes reboot. Andy Serkis, eat your heart out. Goodall’s reputation needed no enhancing, but the delightful Jane will only burnish her image as a Wonder Woman whose weapons are patience and empathy. Opens Friday Dec. 1 at SIFF Uptown theater, not rated

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘2001’ in 2018

As Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, have moviegoers betrayed its legacy?

Through their partnership with Dandelion Africa, Extend the Day supplied solar lights to 9,000 children in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Extend the Day
‘Into the Light’ Cuts Through the Darkness

A documentary about local non-profit Extend the Day shows what it’s like for over 1.2 billion people throughout the world who lack electricity.

Evan Peters preps for a heist in American Animals. Image courtesy The Orchard
‘American Animals’ and How to Not Get Rich Quick

The heist film delivers on-screen thrills, and illustrates a potential future path for MoviePass.

Movies at Marymoor is just one of many local outdoor film offerings. Photo by Erinn J. Hale
Seattle Outdoor Movie Calendar 2018

Journey from Wakanda to a galaxy far, far away with this year’s summer film slate.

Get lost in the desert with ‘Little Tito and the Aliens.’ Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Final Week

From an isolated scientist to an always-connected teen, we highlight the fest’s offerings from June 4–10.

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson star in SIFF’s Centerpiece film, <em>Sorry</em><em> to Bother </em><em>You</em>. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Week 2

A wide variety of comedies highlight the fest’s offerings from May 29–June 3.

Han-deled Well

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ plays it pretty safe, but still manages to be a fun space adventure.

The Primal Attraction of ‘Beast’

Arresting lead performances give this British psychological thriller an alluringly dangerous sexual energy.

I Am Not a Witch. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks Week 1

From a PBS star to a hip-hop firebrand, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 21–28.

Hearts Beat Loud. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Opening Weekend

From Chinese internet stars to a classic Japanese masterpiece, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 17–20.

Just a couple of normal buddies hanging out in Deadpool 2. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Alive and Quippin’

Deadpool 2 might not be as sharp as the original, but the barrage of pop culture jokes keeps things fun.

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF
Women Filmmakers Make Big Moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.