Few living figures outside the realm of religion, politics or entertainment have enjoyed such widespread affection and respect for as long as primatologist Jane Goodall. So it’s somewhat flummoxing to be reminded in Brett Morgen’s new documentary how she was originally treated as a public person: as a “girl scientist” “playing Tarzan” in the jungle, with more ink spilled on her blond hair and long legs than on the breakthrough research that would change how we viewed not only chimpanzees but humanity.

That condescending tenor, sampled in fleeting flashback, is dismissed with a snort by the now 83-year-old subject of “Jane.” Never particularly interested in talking about herself — a matter on which she is characteristically straightforward and plainspoken here — she used the celebrity thrust upon her, then as now, strictly to gain support for her work and causes. Nonetheless, “Jane” provides as much insight as we might hope for (in visual media at least) into a personality whose life might seem well-documented to the point of redundancy.

The X factor is that Morgen gained access to a treasure trove: more than 100 hours of footage originally shot by Goodall’s late ex-husband, famed wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick. Never used, it was considered lost until recently. Comprising the bulk of Morgen’s new feature, that mostly color 16mm material is shaped to retell a remarkable life story in terms greatly benefiting from the trust the cameraman achieved with his subjects — chimps as well as spouse. National Geographic (van Lawick’s employer at the time) should find a wider audience for this charming biographical artifact than for most of its nature docs, with some theatrical exposure possible in addition to the usual home-viewing outlets. A limited U.S. hardtop release commences Oct. 20.

Narrating (some voiceover text presumably was derived from her prior writings) as well as occasionally interviewed in D.P. Ellen Kuras’ present-day footage, Goodall recalls her enormous good fortune in getting to Gombe, the Tanzanian forest where she began her decades-long study of chimpanzee behavior in 1960. But there was also an element of inevitability: The middle-class British woman, then 26, had obsessively dreamed of somehow getting to Africa and its animals from an early age. She was perhaps luckiest to have a mother, Vanne, who instilled in her a sense that she could and should do whatever she pleased — no matter how outlandish or inappropriate it seemed then that a young British lass would journey alone to the “dark continent.”

Goodall eventually became secretary to Kenyan archaeologist Louis Leakey. It was his idea to put her in the wild to observe chimpanzees, despite her lack of much training or any relevant degree. (He chose her in part precisely because she was oblivious to various existing primate academic theories he hoped her findings would contradict.) After some months of being fled from, she found herself being cautiously allowed ever closer into a chimp community’s world.

Her interactions and observations were of an unprecedented intimacy by the time van Lawick arrived to compile visual documentation. She initially resented his presence (however necessary for funding purposes), but that turned to romance, leading to a marriage that the frequent strain of great geographic separation ultimately ended. But not before they’d spawned son Grub, an only child whose rearing gave Goodall further insight into the patterns (and wisdom) of chimp parenting that were among her study’s many revelations. In numerous ways, the Gombe research revealed chimpanzees were much closer to human emotions and skill sets than had hitherto been understood.

Annotated by Goodall’s voiceover comments, the footage of the apes she named and followed for the rest of their lives is engrossing, full of personality and drama. (Nor does van Lawick’s camera shrink from recording graphic mating habits.) We feel her shock when a power shift in the tribe leads to a kind of open warfare, upending her notion that the species “were like us but nicer — I had no idea of the brutality they could show.”

“Jane” basically limits its narrative span to the crucial activities of the 1960s, from which the “found” footage primarily dates. Political, personal and other changes subsequently led her away from Gombe (though research there continued), into a still active life of tireless global education and activism on behalf of wildlife preservation and conservation.

Goodall remains an unassuming character whose apparent rock-steadiness — she says she almost never felt afraid in the field, despite the threat of leopards, poisonous snakes, etc. — underlines the conviction of her hard-won knowledge. (Having no other interviewees here was an appropriate decision, although it does whet appetite for theoretical separate features about Hugo and Grub.)

Morgen takes his tonal cue from her analytical calm, in contrast to the different tenors struck by his prior docs about Kurt Cobain, Robert Evans, the Chicago 10 and others. His shaping (with co-editors Joe Besenkovsky and Will Zndaric) of the mostly preexisting material is astute, just occasionally straying into borderline-flashy crosscutting between unrelated, contrasting elements. Philip Glass’ score applies his usual assertive melodic and rhythmic patterns to good effect.

Film Review: ‘Jane’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 12, 2017. Running time: 90 MIN.

  • Production: (Docu) A National Geographic release (U.S.) of a National Geographic Documentary Films presentation of a National Geographic Studios production. (Int'l sales: Cinetic Media, New York City.) Producers: Brett Morgen, Bryan Burk, James Smith, Tony Gerber. Executive producers: Tim Pastore, Jeff Hasler.
  • Crew: Director: Brett Morgen. Screenplay: Morgen, based on the writing and research of Jane Goodall. Camera (color/B&W, HD and 16mm to HD): Ellen Kuras, Hugo van Lawick. Editors: Joe Besenkovsky, Morgan, Will Zndaric. Music: Philip Glass.
  • With: Jane Goodall.