Buddy

on June 06, 1997 by Jean Oppenheimer
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"Buddy" is a difficult--even painful--film to watch, which is most certainly not what the folks behind the project intended. Based on a true story, as recounted in Gertrude Linz's book, "Animals Are My Hobby," this first feature from Jim Henson Productions concerns an eccentric socialite in 1920s New York who surrounded herself with animals, including four chimpanzees that she raised as human children and a baby gorilla that she also tried to domesticate.
Gertrude "Trudy" Lintz (Rene Russo, poorly served by Caroline Thompson's script) is a wealthy, generous woman whose achilles heel is that she thinks she knows what is best for everyone--including Buddy, a sickly baby gorilla she nurses back to health. She attires Buddy in human clothes, forces him to walk upright, makes him sleep in a bed and generally sets out to civilize him, blind to how unhappy and lonely the growing ape is becoming. She laughs at the way he caresses her clothes, completely failing to recognize his deep, child-like attachment to her.
Well-intentioned though Trudy might be, her insensitivity comes across as cruelty, and that proves an insurmountable problem in the film. When she finally does realize that Buddy belongs with his own kind, only her voiceover suggests that letting him go is painful for her. But the problem is less Russo's performance than the screenplay itself. Thompson, who wrote Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and adapted and directed "Black Beauty," has always been drawn to creatures who feel themselves to be outsiders, which is perhaps why Buddy and the chimpanzees are the most developed, empathetic characters here. Scottish actor Alan Cumming is the only human to bring any depth to his role, and the normally lovable Robbine Coltrane, as Trudy's extraordinarily tolerant husband, is flat and dull. Although beautifully shot and bearing first-rate production design, this Henson effort proves to be a sad disappointment. Starring Rene Russo, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Cumming. Directed and written by Caroline Thompson. Produced by Steve Nicolaides and Fred Fuchs. A Columbia release. Comedy/drama. Rated PG for some threatening animal action. Running time: 84 min
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