Good intentions and a fresh approach to the rules of family filmmaking aren’t enough to turn screenwriter-director Caroline Thompson’s “Buddy,” the maiden release from the Jim Henson Pictures banner, into a satisfying kidpic for tots or a compelling fable for parents. Call it species bias, but an underdeveloped screenplay that gives better character definition to the chimps and the titular gorilla hero than the humans undermines this colorful period “true story” of a ‘ 20s Brooklyn socialite and her mad, merry menagerie. Pic won’t go ape in its early-summer theatrical release, though it could cage a few dollars as counterprogramming to its hard-edged action competition, and should exude stronger animal magnetism on family video and cable.
“Buddy” boasts an interesting setting and a lively lead character in real-life animal-loving eccentric Gertrude (Trudy) Davies Lintz, played deftly and vibrantly by Rene Russo. Lintz’s well-meaning efforts to save Buddy, a baby gorilla, from sure death, and then raise him as a member of the Lintz household, along with dozens of geese, dogs, chimps and horses, form the entire dramatic trajectory of the yarn.
Buddy survives, and grows into a smart, sporadically docile house pet whose size and beastly moodiness are all that keep him from successfully serving the hors d’oeuvres at dinner parties and keeping the mansion’s tile floors spic and span. He interacts with a house full of pesky chimps who dress and act like mischievous children.
Buddy’s uneasy truce with captivity unravels on a trip to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. The pounding of native drums and the crowds that come to be entertained by Lintz’s tricky chimps prove too much for the moody brute, and he runs riot, never to settle completely back into his mellow ape dude groove. His salvation comes in the form of a gentle kingdom he can call his own; the Lintzes bequeath the local zoo with a lavish outdoor stomping grounds for Buddy and a few gorillas of his dreams.
Unfortunately, Thompson’s screenplay, based upon the nonfiction tome “Animals Are My Hobby,” by Lintz, never bothers to develop the relationships, dreams and conflicts of its Homo sapiens. Robbie Coltrane turns in a light, amiable performance as Dr. Lintz, Gertrude’s understanding physician husband, but there’s no edge or depth to their fairy-tale-like partnership. The Performer Formerly Known as Pee-Wee, Paul Reubens, turns up in a pointless blink-and-miss-him cameo. There’s also no explanation of why the Lintzes were so enamored of the animal kingdom that they chose to live inside a maelstrom of noisy, (we assume) messy and ultimately life-threatening critters.
Also absent is any reason to care about the Lintzes’ two key employees, Dick (Alan Cumming), the full-time, hands-on keeper of the beasts, and Emma (Irma P. Hall), a put-upon maid and cook who constantly has to contend with little challenges like meat-cleaver-tossing chimps and a gorilla prone to room-wrecking temper tantrums. Had our four lead characters ever coalesced into a household of conflicting, colorful individuals, Thompson’s ambition to fashion a more thoughtful children’s film might have come into clearer focus. Instead, the film seems a Noah’s Ark of contradictory impulses.
Intriguingly, there are even shades of Nagisa Oshima’s art pic “Max, Mon Amour,” which investigated the kinks of inter-species romance. Coltrane, an ample figure, makes a nice joke about his wife’s fondness for gorilla types, and Buddy takes to wearing Gertrude’s lipstick and fondling her nightclothes, aping a waltz with the presumably forbidden object of his affections. The about-to-be-remade girl-meets-gorilla classic, “Mighty Joe Young,” also hovers over the project, as well as the ultimate g.m.g yarn, “King Kong.” Throw in the Merchant Ivory period stateliness and visual grace of “The Secret Garden,” the loopiness of the animal antics in “Beethoven,” “Babe” and “Andre,” and you have a pic that at times feels all at once like “A Zoo With a View,” as well as a dark meditation on the dangers of suppressing one’s true, animal nature.
Another problem is that much of the steam leaves the words “based on a true story” when your title character is an ingenious but unreal conglomeration of actors inside latex and silicone suits animated by computers and assisted by a dozen technicians.
It’s possible that the material attracted the Henson org because of the possibilities of putting its technicians front and center, especially in a time when computer graphics are challenging the animatronic puppeteers’ primacy. But if that’s the case, the Henson group miscalculated, because the simulated gorilla is continually upstaged by the naturalism and charm of the real-life chimps.
The Brooklyn estate locations were effectively doubled in Los Angeles, and Aussie director of photography Steve Mason (“Strictly Ballroom”) handles both the frenetics of the wildlife-based story and the period visuals with aplomb, though the film’s themes of wildness and captivity would have benefited by more expansive exteriors. The hothouse feel of the mansion grounds tends to become oppressive rather than swinging.
Also missing from composer Elmer Bernstein’s serviceable score are the energies and wonderful jazz rhythms of the era that would seem a natural complement to the story’s subtexts of the joys of freedom and the stampeding sociocultural climate of the early 20th century. Not without merits and charms, “Buddy” is ultimately close, but no banana.