Sony // 2005 // 50 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 22nd, 2005
Jane Goodall has become the stuff of infamy in popular culture. When Goodall first visited Tanzania to study the chimpanzees almost 40 years ago, she had no idea her research would rock the world of animal behavior science. After decades of carefully observing their behavior, Goodall has contributed groundbreaking contributions to primatology, ethology, and anthropology, observations into the social structure, tool-using abilities, and emotional states of our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, research which still resonates today. Don't forget her tireless work as an environmental activist, and wildlife preservation and education campaigns, all of which she is still doing today. Not bad for a woman of 70.
Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe is an aptly-titled documentary, for after many years of campaign and activism work for environmental protection, Goodall returns to the family of chimpanzees she began studying decades ago in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Much has changed since Goodall's last visit, including the usurping of the tyrannical alpha male, Frodo, the dominant chimp. Frodo is bullish and bad-tempered, and has terrorized his community of chimps, almost breaking Goodall's neck on one occasion and, more amusingly, beating the crap out of "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson on a visit to Gombe. Well, maybe not 'amusing" per se, but certainly ironic. Anyway, the important point here is that Frodo is a jerk.
But now, struck by a mysterious illness, Frodo is in bad shape, having lost much of the massive weight that made him a physical threat. The film captures on-camera the deposing of Frodo from power by four other male chimpanzees, eager to exact their revenge on the now-weakened leader, who is exiled from the chimp community, an example of its complex interpersonal relationships, discoveries first recorded by Goodall almost 40 years ago during her Gombe studies. Frodo, once the king of the castle, has now been deposed into isolation, which chimpanzees have an extremely hard time tolerating.
On-camera, Goodall reveals herself to be soft-spoken but surprisingly sparkling-eyed and spry for a 70-year-old woman, full of charming grace and wit. She herself is as much the subject of the documentary as the chimpanzees, as the film spends a great deal of time going over Goodall's academic achievements and highlighting her recent foray into environmental activism and education. In addition to her pilgrimage back to Gombe, Return to Gombe focuses intensely on issues of conservation and the growing challenges facing ecological activists, like the ever-growing bush meat trade. In alarming numbers, forests are being razed and chimpanzees are being hunted for food, simply because people prefer the exotic taste of wild animals. Goodall has set up (rather controversially) a chimpanzee orphanage full of half-paralyzed baby chimpanzees shot by hunters or left without a family, and all kinds of heartbreaking footage. This has earned her much ire from the activist community, since it is unlikely the facility will ever reintroduce the animals to the wild, not because the chimpanzees are incapable of learning how to survive, but rather because of the increasing lack of suitable terrain to support a chimpanzee population, free from hunters, loggers, and other chimpanzee tribes. Opposing chimpanzee groups do not get along, to say the least.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating (and disturbing) segments captured on footage in Return to Gombe is the eerie pre-planned raiding parties between chimpanzee communities, as they sneak clandestinely into each other's territory, seize a lone chimp, and beat him senseless with savage efficiency. This animal predisposition towards organized warfare is a controversial and illuminating insight into the nature of animal behavior and doesn't say anything particularly good about ourselves. Considering we share almost 99 percent of our human DNA with chimpanzees, should it really come as any surprise that Goodall's groundbreaking research revealed chimpanzees to be jerks?
The video and audio quality is on par with a television documentary for Animal Planet or an equivalent network channel, neither a stunning example of DVD technology nor an embarrassment. The detail is soft during certain sequences, but reasonable overall, with fair black levels and color reproduction. The audio fails to impress, but does the job fine with a simple stereo presentation. The only extra, a 26-minute featurette, "On the Road with Jane Goodall," goes into Goodall's tireless crusade into conservation and preservation.
There isn't much bad to say about Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe, which captures shocking, amazing, and heartwarming chimpanzee footage into a montage of environmental activism in an attempt to show the world exactly how threatened our closest living relatives are to vanishing forever. If the film has a flaw, it tends to favor big lofty dramatic phrases like "prisoners of their destiny," which borders on unbearable manipulation and melodrama, but one cannot fault the documentary creators for feeling passionate about their subject matter. After all, this is genuinely distressing stuff. If the purpose of Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe was to shock the viewer with the horrors being perpetrated in the jungles by farmers, loggers, and meat traders, consider this mission accomplished.
With a runtime of less than an hour, this is certainly not going to be a DVD you run out and purchase for yourself, but Jane Goodall's Return to Gombe would certainly be worth a look at a public library or as a rental one night. Because, hey, who doesn't like monkeys?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 50 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Exclusive Featurette with Dr. Jane Goodall
* Roots and Shoots...The Jane Goodall Institute