Based on the real-life exploits of Gertrude Lintz, the film might seem like a natural for the kiddies. Instead, "Buddy" is considerably less fun than its barrel of monkeys, despite the impressive menagerie.
Written and directed by Caroline Thompson ("Black Beauty"), it's often too dark and brooding for most youngsters and, given the subject matter, it could have benefited from a much nimbler pace.
Still, given a fairly empty family berth in the market, this Jim Henson Pictures vehicle might nevertheless sneak in a little pre-"Hercules" business before hitting the video racks.
Like all mothers, Gertrude "Trudy" Lintz learns that the hardest thing about love is letting go, even if her children happen to be much hairier than most. When mama's boy Buddy grows up, no amount of coddling or dressing him in tailor-made Bergdorf Goodman threads can allay his jungle roots. As the animatronic ape begins to have less control over his own strength and primal urges, Trudy is forced to make the decision that will be best for all concerned.
Russo, whose classically exotic looks serve the period piece well, puts in a dedicated performance as the colorful matron who's regarded with constant bemusement by her physician husband (Robbie Coltrane) and loyal assistant (Alan Cumming) and with frequent eyebrow elevation by her long-suffering housekeeper (Irma P. Hall).
Problems surface behind the scenes. As the situation grows more serious, Thompson suddenly seems to be directing "Wuthering Heights", complete with ominous shadows and storms, with the moody Buddy standing in for Heathcliff. Even the supposedly lighter, meant-to be-funny sequences have sinister tones, including a scene in which a pair of out-of-control chimps hurl a meat clever at each other across a kitchen.
As for the effects, the folks at Jim Henson's Creature Shop have done their usual impressive work in bringing the various stages of Buddy to life through stand-alone animatronics or, when Buddy gets bigger, combining suited-up actors with remote-controlled facial movements.
The only trouble is, when placed alongside those real-life, truly animated, mischievous chimps (who are constantly stealing the show), even the most advanced state-of-the-art technology feels mechanically awkward by comparison, like plopping Steven Seagal in the middle of Cirque du Soleil.
Elsewhere, production values are crisp and colorful, from cinematographer Steve Mason's bright, airy compositions to costume designer Colleen Atwood's whimsical fabrics.
A Columbia Pictures release
Jim Henson Pictures presents
an American Zoetrope production
Director-screenwriter Caroline Thompson
Screen story William Joyce and
Based on the book "Animals Are My Hobby" by
Gertrude Davies Lintz
Producers Steve Nicolaides and Fred Fuchs
Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Stephanie Allain and Brian Henson
Director of photography Steve Mason
Production designers David Nichols and
Editor Jonathan Shaw
Music Elmer Bernstein
Costume designer Colleen Atwood
Casting Carrie Frazier
Trudy Lintz Rene Russo
Dr. Lintz Robbie Coltrane
Dick Alan Cumming
Emma Irma P. Hall
Professor Spatz Paul Reubens
Buddy (adult) Peter Elliott, Mak Wilson
Running time -- 84 minutes
MPAA rating: PG