Review: Project Nim

Although a perennial favourite of filmmakers and film-goers alike, in 2011 films about animals reclaimed their cinematic niche. Red Dog has charmed its way into Australian hearts, minds and wallets, Cane Toads: The Conquest celebrated a normally denigrated amphibian, and Water For Elephants combined a teen heart-throb with a creature-centric circus setting. Family fare Winnie The Pooh and The Lion King returned to the big screen, and animated efforts Kung Fu Panda 2, Yogi Bear, Rango, Hop and Rio continued the trend. In addition, Mr Popper’s Penguins and Zookeeper mixed live action and computer-generated animal antics, as did unnecessary primate reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Academy Award-winning director James Marsh (Man On Wire) is the latest to embrace all creatures great and small, albeit with one specific specimen in mind. With non-human hominids already garnering attention this year, he turns his focus to a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky in the documentary Project Nim. Dwelling in his favoured 1970s period setting, Marsh pursues a different angle to that seen in his recent work with The Red Riding Trilogy. Recalling the approach of his applauded chronicle of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire exploits, he examines the existence and impact of an animal plucked from his own kind and raised by humans.

Tracing the life span of Nim over four decades, the film unravels the events that shaped the course of his eclectic and intriguing life. Selected for a Columbia University linguistics experiment on the capacity of other species to learn human communication, Nim spent his early days in Manhattan studying sign language under the care of a growing family. As his prowess increased along with his size and strength, his carers, teachers and habitat evolved, with all that came into contact with the furry ball of energy forever changed as a result. Yet the toll of teaching an animal human ways has a serious and sombre side, as evident when Nim’s advancing years see the project forever halted.

As the titular cheeky, charismatic chimp journeys from celebrated subject to a forgotten experimental remnant, the feature combines archival footage, re-enactments and interviews to tell his touching yet tragic tale. As educational as it is engrossing, the end result is informative and infuriating, heartfelt and harrowing, and poignant and provoking, relating an amazing account of an extraordinary animal. Indeed, it is impossible to remain unmoved by his plight, or by Marsh’s astute exploration of a life lived in both the human and animal worlds, but also separate from his own and adopted kinds. Amidst a plethora of animal-themed offerings this year, Project Nim tells a sweet, strange and sad story of an incredible creature that will touch even the hardest of hearts.

Project Nim is released in Australia on September 29th.

Director: James Marsh

About Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts writer, and film festival organiser. She writes for artsHub, Concrete Playground, FilmInk, Metro Magazine and Screen Education, and Trespass, of course. Her written contributions have popped up at ACMI, Junkee, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, SBS Film, Televised Revolution, At The Cinema, and the World Film Locations book series. Sarah also chats about film on ABC radio, dabbles on her own site (, and tweets at @swardplay.