'Bonobos: Back to the Wild': Film Review

Bonobos Still - H 2015
Vanessa Woods/Hannover House

Bonobos Still - H 2015

An engaging look at an eco-crusader's efforts.

A Belgian conservationist tries to save endangered bonobos in the Congo.

Not quite a kids' nature film, not exactly a grown-up documentary, Alain Tixier's Bonobos: Back to the Wild draws from multiple idioms in its look at Belgian conservationist Claudine Andre's efforts to protect the eponymous animals, an endangered species of great ape indigenous to the Congo Basin. The result is a film that has something to offer the more patient members of multiple audiences; while some may be attracted to its theatrical engagement, small screens seem a more natural choice.

Having released a version of the film in France in 2011, the filmmakers now recruit actors Rebecca Hall and Luke Evans to supply narration in English, with Hall telling Andre's story and Evans voicing an internal monologue for Beni, the infant bonobo whose perils and joys the film follows. Beni's lines are awfully cutesy — "It seems to me that we bonobos really love each other!" is a typical line — and Evans lays it on thick in a way that would be appropriate for something aimed at the very young. But a feature-length running time and grown-up orchestral score present challenges for that age group.

For older kids and adults who aren't put off at first, Beni's story — a scripted narrative inspired by real events —  proves quite engaging. After some very enjoyable shots of bonobos in the wild (the kind of goofball antics any 5 year old would love), little Beni's mother is killed by poachers; he is captured, carted into town, and put on display in a shabby nightclub, terrified and fed beer by stupid patrons. "I'd rather have been eaten," sad Beni moans.

Enter Andre, founder of a refuge called Yola Ya Bonobo near Kinshasa. With the help of a policeman (keeping bonobos as pets is illegal), she rescues the little ape. vets at the sanctuary clean him up, while Esperance, a woman on staff, becomes his full-time surrogate mom.

The workings of this place provide plenty of interest for preservation-minded adult viewers, from the way a handful of women interact with young rescuees to the way they are integrated into the nearly 100-strong population at Yola. But while the refuge is lush and very large, Andre realizes it's not sufficient. We follow on an ambitious effort to locate a piece of jungle out of poachers' reach, then to work with scientists to see which of these human-raised animals are adaptable enough to be the first transplants back into the wild.

Tixier paces the narrative well, but some viewers will resent his heavy reliance on anthropomorphizing the animals and the little sequences invented to add drama to the narrative. The picture finds a satisfying emotional closure, but frustratingly neglects to add titles revealing the long-term results of Andre's efforts. Especially given that the shooting was done some years ago, this is a glaring omission.

Production companies: MC4, SND
Director: Alain Tixier
Screenwriters: Alain Tixier, Philippe Calderon, Guillaume Vincent
Producers: Jean-Pierre Bailly, Vivian Schilling
Director of photography: Patrice Aubertel
Editor: Laurence Buchmann
Music: Jean Baptiste Sabiani
No rating, 89 minutes