directed by Caroline Thompson
(Columbia/Sony, 1997)

Movieland marriages are the stuff tabloids are made of. Still, one Hollywood union last year showed considerable promise: that of American Zoetrope and Jim Henson Productions.

Zoetrope was the brainchild of Francis Ford Coppola, the talented director who fathered The Godfather. Jim Henson Productions is most famous for turning slimy green critters into cute cuddly TV hosts.

Together for little more than a year, Zoetrope and Henson have nevertheless managed to produce a most impressive offspring: Buddy, a bouncing baby gorilla with quite a tale to tell.

It's a true story, too, or mostly true, based on a book by Gertrude Lintz, a doctor's wife who never met an animal she didn't like. By the time we meet Lintz (Rene Russo), her home is a menagerie, her houseboy (Alan Cumming) has become a zookeeper and her husband (Robbie Coltrane) has as many four-legged patients as two-legged.

But this doesn't concern Lintz, who's too busy dressing up her chimps as children and taking them to the picture show to notice that her life is markedly different from those around her. That all changes when she meets Buddy.

Buddy is a baby gorilla about to drop off of pneumonia when Lintz finds him at a zoo. She takes him home, and through sheer willpower nurses him back to health. And soon Buddy is a fully functional member of the household, complete with vest, trousers and a household chore for which he seems anatomically designed: scrubbing the kitchen floor.

But Buddy is no Born to be Wild. There's a dark side to Buddy that makes the film as compelling as it is comical.

For Buddy was a real ape, separated from his kind, and as he aged, it was only natural he'd develop an unnatural affection to the first woman to show him care and concern. When Lintz is out with her husband, Buddy sits alone in his room, her red dress in hand, waiting for her return. It's a scene as touching as it is chilling.

It took no fewer than eight performers to play Buddy, and the attention to detail shows. Buddy is as seamless as it is timeless. Nowhere does Buddy look like a guy in an ape suit.

But the story is every bit as good as the special effects, and Buddy's rampages through the Chicago Exposition of 1939, where Lintz had put him on display, and the Lintz house after his return are both believable and terrifying.

Much of the credit here has to go to Russo, who never lets on that she's acting with animals, real or animated. She's entirely natural in her surroundings, whether she's talking to the animals in her garden -- in their own languages, not English -- or tricking Buddy into a moving van by lining up red chairs for him to sit in one after the other into the truck bed.

Lintz was one of those rare individuals whose refusal to accept conventional wisdom helped us develop a real understanding of those closest to us in the evolutionary tree.

Henson and Zoetrope have shown the good sense to tell her story simply and succinctly.

May they be blessed with more offspring than they know what to do with, and may they all be as endearing and as enduring as Buddy.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

Buy Buddy from Amazon.com.