Review: ‘Unlocking the Cage’ Doc Takes Animal Rights Case to Court

"Unlocking the Cage" (2016) - Image -

Major Person-hood Questions Posed in ‘Unlocking the Cage’

For husband-wife directing duo, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, Unlocking the Cage happens to be their most unlikely documentary to date. The couple have spent a career out of developing music documentaries, including Searching for Jimi Hendrix and Moon Over Broadway. One expects a slightly jarring experience to see them outside their directorial comfort zone by documenting animal rights. But that’s not the case.

Set in Upstate New York from 2013 to 2015, animal rights lawyer, Steven Wise leads a crusade alongside fellow Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) activists to obtain person-hood for several chimpanzees. From the start, he and his team select suitable clients across Upstate New York that demonstrate human-like abilities. The search doesn’t find the right footing when the chimps selected keep dying off one after another.

Fortunately for Wise and his NhRP colleagues, there are other candidates out there that demonstrate the same type of cognitive skills. Tommy, a privated-owned chimp, lives in cage in a shed in Gloversville, New York, where the owner also rents out reindeer. He used to star in 1987’s Project X, but now sadly sits alone with TV as his sole companion. Kiko from Niagara Falls was also in the film industry, but rendered partially deaf while beaten on a Tarzan set. The linchpin in their campaign, however, is a pair from Stony Brook University named Hercules and Leo. The two are utilized for locomotion research. Think motion-capture in a major blockbuster.

Unlocking the Cage spends little time with actual interviews, rather diving headfirst into the heart of the matter. The only occassion when the documentary even treads on interviews is with Stephen Colbert and few other media personalities on-air. At least half of the documentary is build-up, following the trail of Wise and his colleagues from location to location where the chimps are being held. There are plenty of setbacks throughout, but perserverence is key for the NhRP, who genuinely believe in this cause. The evidence is there that these chimps aren’t compatible in their existing environments, but the way it’s illustrated is never forced or overdone. Granted, there are few shots that may be difficult to handle for sensitive audiences.

With all the build-up of putting all the pieces of the case in place, the second half of Unlocking the Cage hammers home the legal aspect and technicalities that go along with it. There’s plenty of bold questions being asked. For example, is a chimpanzee a thing, even though it has impressive cognitive ability? Another one was how can a chimpanzee being a person if it bears no legal responsibility? Those are just a few to ponder while dissecting the documentary.

For some audiences, the court cases may seem difficult to digest with Wise’s rhetoric hanging simply on a way a word is phrased or how the pleas tend to go round-and-round with the various judges. But you don’t need a legal background to understand where Wise is going with his campaign. Still, it’s a fascinating illustration works in handling unprecendented cases like the one here.

Wise’s rhetoric is strong, hinging on habeas corpus and the chimps’ rights to personhood. And it’s a noteworthy question worth asking. Going back to the steps it took to get to that point in the documentary, Hegedus and Pennebaker make it crystal clear to connect the dots, while injecting several instances of sympathy to raise the audience’s emotional stakes. The documentary narrowly focuses on the chimps as other animals (which they briefly mentioning cetaceans) open Pandora’s Box in storytelling and undisclosed legal pursuance.

Unlocking the Cage is an honest effort that doesn’t quite end on a cut-and-dry note as one would hope for, but should still please those interested in animal rights and the legal system that goes hand-in-hand.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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