“I wanted to move among them without fear, like Tarzan,” says legendary conservationist/researcher Jane Goodall, in her quiet voice. She’s speaking of her years spent in the jungles of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where she arrived in 1960 to study chimpanzee behavior under the auspices of Dr. Louis Leakey. Goodall was, at the time, a 26-year-old secretary with no academic or research credentials — no qualifications at all, she remembers, other than the essential ones: “a love of animals, and monumental patience.”
We hear Goodall, now in her 80s, speaking in Brett Morgen’s documentary “Jane,” but contemporary footage makes up just a small fraction of this fascinating film. Instead, we’re gently hurled into an earlier time: Using previously unseen film hidden in archives at the National Geographic for more than 50 years, Morgen shows us a heartbreakingly young Goodall, perched comfortably in a tree or quietly finding a trail where none exists, exploring what she called “a magic world that no human had ever explored before.” Slowly, she waited for the chimpanzees to accept her; eventually, on their own terms, they did. “The more I learned, the more I realized how like us they were,” she remembered, “in so many ways.”
The footage, in its Technicolor lushness (echoed by the intricate vines of Philip Glass’ score), is eerily beautiful: close-up moments of lacy-winged bees and languid centipedes, the wide-eyed face of an enchanting toddler chimp; the impossibly rich, damp green of the trees. And there are personal moments that feel like home movies writ large: Goodall washing her hair in a stream, or smiling at wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, with whom she fell in love. But it’s most evocative as a memorable portrait of a woman, both in youth and late life, who always knew what she wanted — and who, in doing so, helped make the world a better place.
Rated: PG for thematic elements involving animal behavior, and brief smoking images. Starring: Jane Goodall. Director: Brett Morgen. Running time: 90 minutes. Theater: Flicks.