'Unlocking the Cage': Film Review

Unlocking the Cage still 2 _ H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A crisp and convincing doc.

This doc chronicles a lawyer's attempt to have "person" status awarded to certain animals.

Lawyers often end up representing clients that they might consider not-quite-human. In the unique case documented in Unlocking the Cage, attorney Steven Wise represents two chimpanzees in an attempt to get “person” rights for certain animals. Wise is an animal-rights lawyer who challenges the fact that animals, although not human, are treated under the law as objects, rather than living beings. As such, they are subjected to experimentation and death, often in cruel fashion.

Wise argues that certain animals — chimpanzee, whales, elephants, dolphins— are somewhat similar to humans in terms of cognitive skills. In this amusingly serious quest, we see the obstacles Wise encounters in making his case. It's in itself a challenge to find a judge to agree to take it all on.

Unlocking the Cage makes its case for reevaluation of non-human animals' legal status in crisp, convincing fashion. Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker mix interviews with an array of testimony from medical and scientific experts and intersperse clips of animal abuses. The film delineates the lengthy creative and legal crusade that Wise and his team, the Nonhuman Rights Project, have undertaken. 

In regard to his two test-case plaintiffs, chimps Hercules and Leo, we learn they have been removed from what we might dub experimentation row at the University of New York, Stony Brook. Now Wise's case expands to a larger pool of potential jurors, namely viewers of this upcoming HBO Documentary.

Production: Pennebaker Hegedus Films.
Cast: Steve Wise, Hercules, Leo, Natalie ProsinLiddy Stein, Mary Lee Jensvold, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Justice Barbara Jaffe
Directors: Chris HegedusDonn Alan Pennebaker
Producers: Chris HegedusFrazer PennebakerRosadel Varela
Executive Producers: Frazer Pennebaker
Cinematographer: Chris Hegedus
Editor: Pax Wassermann
Music: James Lavino

Not rated, 91 minutes