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Featured DVD Review: Project Nim

February 6th, 2012

Project Nim - Buy from Amazon

A couple of weeks ago, I thought Project Nim was the favorite to win the Best Documentary at the Oscars. However, it wasn't even nominated. Was I sucked into the hype? Or was this one of this year's big Oscar snubs.

The Movie

The film begins with the birth of Nim Chimpsky at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma one day in November of 1973. Chimpanzees being born in this institute was not a rare occurrence, but with Nim something rather unique was going to happen. Instead of performing the usual tests, Hebert Terrace set up Project Nim. During this experiment, Nim would be raised by a human family as a human being to see if he would pick up language as a result. Not just learn a few signs, but actually understand language as Noam Chompsky would define it.

The first family Nim lived with was Stephanie LaFarge, who was married and had many kids of her own. It was first seen as the perfect place to raise a chimpanzee, because she knew how to raise a kid and the farm had plenty of room. However, Herb was not happy with the quality of education Pim was getting in that household, so he first got a student, Laura-Ann Petitto, to start teaching him in a more formal way. Eventually Herb took Pim away from Stephanie's family and brought him to Columbia University, where he would live in a mansion near the campus with Herb, Laura-Ann, and other teachers. They do make a lot of early progress and begin to earn some media attention (there's even a clip from a story David Suzuki did on the project). But this initial excitement is tempered as Pim grows older, he becomes more difficult to control, and suddenly the prospects for the experiment are not as bright. And if he is no longer useful in the experiment, where will he go?

That's a good a place as any to end the plot summary. Although it is not like the film has some major plot twist that I need to avoid, like Nim Chimpsky was actually Andy Serkis is a motion capture suit. (There are a few scenes that are recreations that include an animatronic substitute, on the other hand.) The film can be divided into two parts, the first being the experimental stage of Nim's life and the second being his post experimental life. In both halves, the film spends a great deal of time looking at the humans that raised Pim, as well as Pim himself. The humans don't always come across as sympathetic as Pim does. I was a little disappointed that the film didn't spend more time on the science behind the experiments. It spent more time on marriage troubles and romantic entanglements than the science. On the other hand, that's really my only serious complaint. It is a fascinating story told by the people who were there with the director, James Marsh, adding enough flair to enhance the story without overwhelming it.

The Extras

James Marsh sits down for an audio commentary track and for a solo track and a it's quite energetic and very informative. Bob Ingersoll is the focus of Bob's Journey. The eleven-minute featurette looks at the traveling Bob Ingersoll as he traveled from film festival to film festival supporting and promoting the movie. Finally, there's a 34-minute long making of featurette.

The Verdict

I'm still flummoxed Project Nim didn't get an Oscar nod. Just a few weeks ago, I really thought it would win the Oscar for Best Documentary. The DVD has a solid amount of extras, especially for the genre, and all are worth checking out. Overall it is an easy recommendation and a contender for Pick of the Week.

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