The scene: Men grouped around a dying mother-to-be. “You’ve got to help her, doctor,” says one to another. “I’m a PhD,” he replies.
First man, a moment later: “I think she’s going into labor, doctor!” The PhD: “I need some hot water! I need some towels!”
Cut to beaming PhD holding a swaddled infant: “It’s a girl!”
Anthropologist Hugo Archibald’s trip to Africa has just culminated in the delivery of a chimpanzee baby, about to become a member of his family in the U.S.
She’s equal parts mischief-maker, confidant, sage and saint, but she can’t save “The Jennie Project,” one unremittingly excruciating Disney Channel movie.
Hugo’s surprise return with Jennie the chimp is a flop with his wife (Sheila Kelley) and son Andrew (Alex D. Linz). Dad’s been away for months and they feel abandoned.
Soon, though, Jennie and Andrew are tight; she even understands why he tears up the letter approving funds for Dad’s next African trip. “Letter, bad,” she signs.
Oh, yes. Jennie’s being taught sign language by a “preeminent” primatologist (Sheryl Lee Ralph).
Then Jennie stirs up big trouble, with medical and legal consequences.
Will an emergency hospital nurse recognize Jennie’s humanity and admit her? Will Jennie testify on her own behalf in court? Will she teach Hugo (Lance Guest) to “see the world not only through our eyes but through our hearts?”
Any genuine exploration of primates’ capacity to learn, communicate and feel emotion is sunk from the get-go under Gary Nadeau’s trite direction and in Charles Leavitt’s wince-inducing script. The cast sinks, too, particularly Linz, whose earnest intensity outweighs the film.
* “The Jennie Project,” Disney Channel, tonight at 7 p.m. Repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 9 p.m.; Wednesday at 8:40 p.m.; July 27 at 9:10 a.m. and July 31 at 2 and 8:25 p.m. The network has rated it TV-G (may be unsuitable for young children).