Title: Jane’s Journey
Director: Lorenz Knauer
If one were to ruminate on the equivalent of a Mother Teresa-type figure for the advocacy of natural animal research and wildlife conservation, it would likely be Dr. Jane Goodall, a world-famous icon known for her groundbreaking scientific field work accrued while living amongst chimpanzees in Africa. Directed by Lorenz Knauer, the documentary “Jane’s Journey” offers up a biographical snapshot of both the personal and professional Goodall. Inclusive of some compelling piecemeal details, it’s a film that’s hard to assail with much enthusiasm or gusto, but the truth is that it’s an awkward and generally unfocused mash-up of mixed perspectives and mission statements.
It’s hard to believe, but the British-born Goodall was in her early 20s when she first headed to Africa, lacking any formal graduate degree. She’d been enamored with animals from a young age, and seized on this quixotic idea of living alongside and studying them — nevermind that such a plan was wildly unrealistic, especially for a woman. Nevertheless, she persisted, visiting and eventually securing employment at the Kenya National Museum, and winning the confidence of its director, Louis Leakey, with a combination of otherworldly patience and extensively annotated behavioral observations. She eventually enrolled at Cambridge University in 1962, and obtained her PhD three years later.
Goodall’s pioneering research of wild chimpanzee behavior — including the first confirmation of their creation and use of tools, which required a change in the scientific definition of humankind — earned her the moniker of “Ambassador of the Apes,” and made her a superstar in environmental and animal studies subsets. More than five decades on the research still continues, under the auspices of her eponymous institute.
It’s this facet that provides “Jane’s Journey” with its first big hiccup. Much of the early portion of the movie trades in straight biography, charting the life events that took Goodall to Kenya, and informed her seemingly unshakable sense of purpose. Eventually, though, the film starts wandering all over the map. Its disparate areas of inquiry aren’t at all mutually exclusive, but it’s clear that Goodall submitted to a film like this in large part to push the educational agenda of her institute. Knauer, however, seems not to have gotten the memo — or at least received it too late, since the Jane Goodall Institute and its expansive, global “Roots & Chutes” program is not first mentioned until 50 minutes into the movie, and only then in an abrupt and jarring fashion that doesn’t fully elucidate its mission. Largely lacking in any sort of natural pivot points or more focused narrative cohesiveness, Knauer just throws scenes and sequences together willy-nilly.
A few celebrities (Pierce Brosnan, Angelina Jolie) familiar with Goodall’s advocacy pop up to offer testimonials to her piety, but for every moment of genuine interest or revelation, there are padded-out, trivial reactions from lecture tour attendees (even at 77 years of age, Goodall still travels more than 300 days a year, giving speeches, doing book-readings and attending conferences), or other tertiary figures. Knauer, too, fails to dig substantively into passages of conflict and difficulty in Goodall’s personal life, and peg them to attitudinal shifts (or the lack thereof) in professional behavior. When Goodall’s lone son, “Grub,” reflects on the scariness of chimpanzees from his perspective as a child, or the later friction in his adult relationship with his mother caused by his decision to go into a lobster import-export business, it hints at something deeply interesting — not only because it’s humanizing, but also because it reflects tests of Goodall’s core values. Goodall’s life and work is fascinating and worthy of praise; “Jane’s Journey” fitfully captures that, but also misses the mark for most of its running time.
Note: in addition to regular theatrical engagements this week and next, on September 27, Goodall will appear live on hundreds of movie screens across the country for a rare event that will include a screening of “Jane’s Journey,” interaction with theater audiences and in-studio celebrity guests. For theater and ticket information, visit www.FathomEvents.com/jane.
Written by: Brent Simon