Good-Hearted 'Buddy' Sidesteps Deeper Issues

What has exotic animals, interactions with frequently puzzled humans, and lots of special effects?

"The Lost World: Jurassic Park" fits that description, but there's another right answer too - and the second one is a lot friendlier to mayhem-shy moviegoers who'd rather watch animals develop relationships with humans than munch them at snack time.

It's called "Buddy," and while it's not one of the season's best pictures, it provides an oasis for audiences seeking a quieter experience than Steven Spielberg's blockbuster offers.

Based on real events, "Buddy" focuses on Gertrude Lintz, a 1920s socialite with a passion for animals and a bank account big enough to indulge it. Her luxurious home swarms with everything from horses and dogs to rodents, serpents, and fish. Her husband, a successful physician, supports her hobby without quite sharing her enthusiasm. A good-natured assistant helps her cope with unexpected challenges that arise from time to time.

Trudy loves all her pets, but her favorites are four chimpanzees so cute and smart they "almost seem human," to use a familiar phrase. Taking that expression literally, Trudy raises them as if they were children - teaching them to eat human foods, play human games, even pretend to say human prayers when they go to bed at night.

It's this aspect of her personality that makes Trudy a potentially interesting movie character - not just a millionairess with a hobby, but a single-minded eccentric whose dedication has crossed the line into obsession. Is her odd treatment of the chimps a legitimate expression of animal-loving good intentions? Or is she preventing them from having the sort of natural, noncivilized life they were born for?

Such questions grow more pressing when Buddy comes along. He's a baby gorilla with serious health problems, and there's no doubt that Trudy's loving care saves his life and restores his health. She adds him to her domestic menagerie and looks forward to years of household happiness - forgetting that gorillas change their temperaments as they get older, reverting to habits more suited to a jungle than a well-manicured estate.

Which raises still more questions. Will his unusual upbringing enable Buddy to stay in Trudy's special world? Or will the call of the wild make him an unfit member of even this unorthodox household?

"Buddy" would be a better movie if it probed more deeply into issues of animal behavior and human-animal relations, and if it treated Lintz's treatment of her chimps as a moral issue instead of a mere oddity.

Also disappointing is the portrayal of Buddy not by a real gorilla, but by an actor and a remote-control team equipped with a high-tech "animatronic" costume. True, casting a gorilla in the role would have led to intractable training problems not unlike those Lintz faced. But the artificial beast never looks as real as the genuine animals it shares the screen with, and this hinders the movie's overall credibility.

Rene Russo gives a fittingly extravagant performance as Lintz, and Robbie Coltrane is enjoyably offbeat as her long-suffering husband. Alan Cumming and Paul Reubens head the supporting cast. The picture was written and directed by Caroline Thompson, whose earlier screenplays range from "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" to "The Addams Family" and "The Secret Garden," all of which are more adventurous and memorable than her new movie.

"Buddy" has a good heart, but that's not enough to make a successful summer entertainment.

* 'Buddy' has a PG rating. It contains scenes of mild violence involving humans and animals.

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