Gertrude Lintz (Rene Russo), a wealthy and eccentric socialite in the Twenties, has turned her palatial estate into an animal sanctuary. Alongside her loving, endlessly patient husband Dr. Bill Lintz (Robbie Coltrane), Gertrude runs a zoo, breeds prize-winning dogs and most importantly rears a group of decidedly mischievous chimpanzees as if they were human children. Which means they wear human clothes, play with toys and visit the local cinema where they regularly wreak havoc and scare people witless. Gertrude applies the same philosophy when she adopts an orphaned gorilla she christens Buddy. Hand-reared and bottle fed by the doting Gertude, young Buddy grows increasingly dependent upon the woman he regards as his mother. Yet when Buddy grows up, he struggles to find his place in the human world and increasingly reverts to savagery. It slowly dawns on Gertrude that a wild animal belongs in the wild, but given Buddy has no idea how to fend for himself what can she do?
Co-produced by the Jim Henson Company and Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope, Buddy was the second film from writer-director Caroline Thompson, favoured screenwriter of Tim Burton for whom she penned Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Following her fresh take on the Anna Sewell classic Black Beauty (1995) Buddy reflected Thompson's obvious affection for animals and empathy with their struggle to find a safe place in a tumultuous world governed by the dictates of men. The screenplay was adapted from a book written by the real Gertrude Lintz detailing the life of not one but actually two gorillas raised at home, Massa who went on to become the oldest gorilla on record until 2008 and Gargantua who was originally known as Buddy and sadly died young as a circus attraction while his remains are now displayed in a museum.
Aspects of the film imply Thompson intended Buddy to serve as a fable about motherhood, as Gertrude struggles to regain control over her increasingly wayward “son” who comes to resent her attempts to civilize him and lashes out, yet the slight running time suggests the studio tampered with the production to craft a more conventional family film. As a result the film strikes an awkward tone veering constantly from slapstick monkey mischief into more earnest docu-drama along the lines of Gorillas in the Mist (1988). There is a lot of time spent detailing the naughty antics of chimpanzees Maggie and Joe. Yet while the chimps are remarkable actors and liven things up, the more intriguing aspects of the story remain under-developed. What the film does have going for it is a terrific central performance from Rene Russo in an all too rare leading role. From the moment Gertrude greets her assembled animals with a jungle yell Russo's ebullient performance pulls the viewer along through a wayward narrative through sheer force of personality. The film itself might pale beside her stellar turn in the Pierce Brosnan remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) but goes some way to proving her oft-overlooked skill as an actress.
Yet though the film goes out of its way to lionize Gertrude Lintz as a free-spirit, idealist and defiant non-conformist it never probes the wisdom of her actions that are in some way responsible for poor Buddy's plight. Sure, in the jungle a motherless baby gorilla would have starved to death but while Gertrude's compassion gave Buddy a chance at life viewers may find themselves reluctantly sharing the point of view her more skeptical associates when she sets out to raise him as a human boy. Ultimately the plot only proves what most sensible animal lovers already know, which is that one cannot, or perhaps more importantly should not, try to raise an ape as a human being. Animals should be allotted their dignity and respect as animals. As Buddy grows older he inevitably also grows wilder and feels increasingly insecure and alienated, which culminates in him running amuck (going ape-shit, if you will) on an ill-advised trip to the World's Fair. Gertrude's eagerness to exhibit her apes on the vaudeville circuit adds another troubling layer of ambiguity the film fails to address.
Surprisingly the biggest criticisms were leveled at the animatronic ape effects created by the Henson company. True, the ape suit looks unrealistic set beside real apes like Maggie and Joe but as one of the last examples of practical effects employed in an ape movie instead of sleek and shiny CGI, the puppetry is as accomplished and expressive as one would expect of the Henson unit. Many of the tender scenes between Russo and Buddy do move even if the film as a whole proves disappointingly amorphous.