The saddest image in Unlocking the Cage, the new film from married documentary veterans Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, is that of Tommy, one of the chimps featured prominently in the sappy 1980s Matthew Broderick vehicle Project X.
Tommy now lives in captivity at an upstate New York trailer park that also leases reindeer for children’s parties. Long retired from moviedom, he spends his days in a cage placed behind a glass enclosure, hidden in the back of a rarely visited trailer. When lawyer Steven Wise and his accomplices at the Nonhuman Rights Project take this and similar animal injustices to the courts, and start to gain media attention, the owner of the facility offers a hilarious defense. “We let Tommy watch cartoons,” he says. “And his walls are painted like the jungle.” “Well, if it’s so nice, then the owner should move in there,” Wise retorts.
Unlocking the Cage could use more biting laughs like these, but it’s never polemical, as it easily could have been. The movie follows Wise’s perilous attempt to upgrade the legal status of chimps, elephants, dolphins, and other animals with human-like sentiments — grief, loneliness, cognitive awareness of mortality. Recognizing them as “persons,” Wise argues, is the only way to truly protect them from animal cruelty.
This is clearly a bold notion — Wise is often ridiculed in the press — but to their credit, the filmmakers neither condescend to nor lionize their subject. Wise never pities himself, he knows how to laugh at himself, and though he and his team have so far faltered in their overall purpose, with each failed court appeal comes raised social awareness. Unlocking the Cage is a genuine rarity: a rather happy documentary about a losing battle for justice.
Unlocking the Cage
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
First Run Features/HBO Documentary Films
Opens May 25, Film Forum