Jennie Project, The

The Jennie Project is a heartwarming family drama that highlights the human/animal bond. Hugo Archibald is a Natural History professor on assignment in Africa where his study of chimpanzees awakens him to the harsh reality of poachers and the rapid disappearance of the primates' natural habitat. When a pregnant chimp is fatally wounded by poachers, Hugo delivers her baby and finds he has an immediate connection with the infant chimp. Fearing for the safety of the infant in the wild, Hugo brings her home to his suburban home and introduces the chimp, Jennie, to his family. As the story unfolds, the family learns about the difficulties and joys, the intelligence and emotional connections that challenge their concepts about primates, pets and family ties.

  • Starring: Lance Guest, Sheila Kelley, Alex D. Linz, Abigail Mavity, Sammi Rotibi and Bella and Eliie as Jennie
  • Director(s): Gary Nadeau
  • Producer(s): Stu Segall Productions
  • Screenwriter(s): Charles Leavitt
  • Distributor: The Disney Channel
  • Animal Coordinator: Bob Dunn's Animal Services
  • Release Date: Friday, July 13, 2001
  • Rating: Acceptable

Featured Animal Action

Primates As Actors:

The Chimpanzees used for the film are all owned and raised by the trainer who has rescued many of them from either circuses or private owners who realized that chimps do not make good pets. They are raised together and socialized to live together and play as a group. The animals are housed collectively in spacious surroundings and have developed loving bonds with their trainers. A retirement program, fund and acreage for these animals and other primates in the entertainment industry is being established as a response to the growing need for primate sanctuaries. Although this is in the early stages of development, it is supported by the commitment of many in the film industry who are sensitive to the critical plight of primate conservation and the devastating loss of natural habitats in the wild.

The Acting Preparation:

All of the actors, especially the children had time in pre-production to assimilate to working with the chimps and for the chimps to establish a comfortable relationship with the actors. Trainers slowly had the children and chimps sit together, hold hands and eventually walk together and used sign language. Over time and with the constant supervision of the trainers, the actors were taught to hold the chimp, walk together and interact together throughout the film.

The chimps trained for months before filming began to learn a variety of behaviors including the movements that depicted sign language. The chimps were trained using a method known as "operant conditioning" using praise and food rewards as positive reinforcements. Climbing, running, jumping and throwing things was a game for the chimps and a component of their routine training that in large part highlights play behavior. Much of the training involves "patterning" which is basically the repetition of actions and rewards until the behavior becomes a learned response. This is how the chimps also learned some of the hand positions that related to the sign language. They were fond of mimicking their trainers and copied the hand signs that the trainers demonstrated.

When the chimps needed to focus on a prop, a treat was placed inside the prop riveting the chimp's attention. Toys were also used to focus or cue the animals for looks. Many of the props were rehearsed in pre-production so that the chimps were familiar with them and the action that was expected — such as throwing eggs, tossing groceries, tearing up letters and books, or using a hammer. When the scene called for Jennie to play with a box of toys, the chimp happily played as she does with her own toys during daily play periods.

Two chimps, Bella and Ellie, who were approximately 4 years old at the time of filming were used to play Jennie. By using two chimps to play one character, each chimp had plenty of rest time and was not tired by the work schedule. The individual personalities of the animals were also a key component in finding those behaviors that each chimp was fond of repeating. Collectively, their individual strengths and talents could be used to fulfill all the requirements of the single character. Two chimps playing one also helped in filming eating scenes so that no one chimp would get too full. Two trainers worked with each chimp during filming to place and cue the animals and be positioned in close proximity for the reassurance and safety of the animal.

American Humane Association's Film and Television Unit monitored the film throughout production. The animals received a very high standard of care. The trainers use modern, humane techniques to cue and motivate the chimps and AHA's Guidelines, which promote safeguards for animal actors and encourage humane training techniques, were followed.

The Story Unfolds:

Professor Hugo Archibald is working in Africa on his doctorate when he is awakened to the plight of primates in the wild, especially chimpanzees. Poachers attack a pregnant chimp and although she is carried back to his camp, she dies in childbirth. Seeing the newborn chimp so affects him that he cannot leave the baby behind to become prey to the poachers and the destruction of the natural habitat. Without questioning the wisdom or practicality of his decision, the compassionate professor brings the baby back to the states and home to meet his wife and children.

For the scene in Africa, there were both live chimps and a fake stuffy used for filming. When poachers target the mother chimp and shoot her with a dart, the scene was filmed in cuts. The dart was a prop and in no way harmed the live animal. The sounds of bellowed warnings and the resounding wail of the wounded animal were sound effects added in post-production.

The wounded mother chimp was played by Maggie, an older chimp who is a seasoned actress. She was cued to do a lay down and remained so still she appeared to be unconscious. When the sack holding the wounded chimp is being carried to camp, a fake stuffy was used to fill the prop sack. The dart that is pulled from the chimp's body was a prop dart that the trainer placed through the blanket surrounding Maggie. The positioning of the prop and the chimp gave the appearance that the dart was being pulled from the animal when in fact it never made any contact with the chimp.

The newborn chimp was played by a chimp named Knuckles who was a year and a half old. The trainer wrapped the chimp in a blanket and handed him to the actor to cradle.

All of the props that appeared to be primate skulls and bones were supplied by either the San Diego Museum of Man or were fake plastic replicas.

A New Addition to the Family:

When Hugo returns home his children are stunned to find his duffle bag rolling around on the lawn all by itself. His children, Andrew and Sarah, along with his wife Lea are introduced to Jennie. Hugo explains that the tribesmen called her Jen-ikwa-si-go which means "little one who makes self look big." As fascinating as Jennie is, they are a bit tentative about having an adopted chimp in the family.

The chimps, Bella and Ellie, were rehearsed for many days before filming the duffle bag scene. The chimp, Bella, was most comfortable inside the bag and approached it as a game. She was placed by the trainer and verbally cued to sit up or roll around. For some of the scene, a duffle bag was rigged to appear as if something inside was making it roll around without having to tire the live animal.

Jennie starts to settle in with the family and although she eats at the table, Lea insists she sleep in the basement. Jennie isn't too pleased with this and finds her way into bed with Lea. Lea wakes up to a gentle hand stoking her face. When she realizes it is Jennie she is startled and rolls out of bed. The trainer was able to guide the hand of the chimp in one of the takes and the trainer doubled for the actress in another.

Jennie even endears herself to Andrew as they sit on the porch coyly eyeing each other. As Andrew looks at Jennie, she turns away, then as she turns back to him, Andrew turns from her gaze. They keep this up, but both are too enchanted by each other to leave.

When Jennie appears startled by the vacuum, the scene was actually shot using a rattling noise off camera to get the chimp to look toward the camera. When this look was edited with the sound effects of the vacuum, the chimp appears to be startled. The vacuum was never on around the chimps.

Jennie isn't into clean up and she apparently has more fun trashing the kitchen. When Lea discovers the mess, Jennie takes off out the doggie door to the waiting arms of her trainer who had verbally cued the chimp to do so. In running out the doggie door she scares the mailman, Frank. This will be one of many encounters with her postal nemesis. Jennie gets into a neighbors garden and even chases the Minister's wife. All these fiascos prompt Lea to beg Hugo to find another home for Jennie. However, the thought of Jennie in a cage is too repellant for Hugo and he makes a case for Jennie to stay, builds a tree house while Andrew teaches her the game, Rock-Paper-Scissors and Sarah teaches her ballet twirls. They even have a birthday party for Jennie and her own cake.

Lea acquiesces, but finds she is now mom to the chimp and even has to change her diaper. When it appears as if the actress must change Jennie's dirty diaper, the diaper was not at all dirty — the actress was acting and Jennie was reclining. Eventually Lea begins bathroom training.

The Signs of Intelligence:

It is hard to keep a family member like Jennie a secret and eventually the Archibald's are paid a visit from a Primatologist, Pamela Prentiss, who believes that Jennie is a "species isolated" chimpanzee and should be living with other chimps in the colony she monitors at the Tahatchee Center. Prentiss also wants to teach Jennie sign language to test her intelligence. The Archibald's won't send Jennie away and prefer to allow Prentiss to come to the house to work with the chimp on communicating. Although the family begins to work on their sign language skills, Jennie prefers to eat the books.

Andrew and Jennie go to the movies to see a Tarzan picture and Andrew believes Jennie relates to the images of the chimps in the film. They eat popcorn, drink soda and imitate the actor on the screen by thumping their chests. The bond with Andrew is strong and Jennie seems to get the hang of sign language in a breakthrough with Andrew.

For a visit to Prentiss' office, Lea dresses Jennie in children's clothes which prompts the primatologist to lecture the Archibalds on the inappropriateness of clothing chimps. She complains that they are treating the chimp like a circus animal with no dignity and restates her belief that Jennie belongs in the colony with other chimps. Hugo still can't bare to see Jennie in a cage.

Jennie Meets Her Match:

Jennie gets to stay with the Archibalds, but she begins to get mischievous. She takes the groceries from the car and steals the mail from the mailman. On one occasion she gets hold of the mail and scatters it all over the lawn.

In frustration, the mailman appears to lift a 2 x 4 and swat at the pesky chimp. This scene was filmed in cuts and the chimp was not on set when the actor was filmed raising the board in anger. The chimp was filmed separately jumping up and down, shaking and waving her arms.

Then Jennie hijacks the mail truck. When Jennie steals the mail truck and drives off it was a specially rigged vehicle that was actually driven by a stuntman. The trainer was able to crouch under Jennie's seat and cue her to hold the wheel, stay seated or jump around as well as reassure her while the truck moved slowly. A separate truck was filmed careening through the streets and finally crashing. No chimp was in the truck when the crash was staged.

Hugo wraps Jennie in a blanket and rushes her to the hospital emergency room for treatment. There was only one take for the chimp in the blanket as an establishing shot after which a stuffy was used. Although, the hospital is reluctant to treat animals, Jennie wins the sympathies of the nurse when the chimp uses her sign language skills to have a conversation with a deaf boy. The trainer doubled as the nurse and carried Jennie into emergency and then out again wearing a cast on her leg.

All of the clothes and props such as the cast on Jennie's leg were specially constructed and the chimps were given lots of time to become accustomed to wearing these items. The cast was a fake lightweight prop that the trainers carefully placed on the chimp and only for short periods of time.

Jennie seems to be able to charm everyone, except the mailman. Wrecking his truck was a last straw, and he decides to take Jennie and the Archibald's to court to have Jennie sent permanently to the colony. Even Jennie's knowledge of sign language can't save her and she is sentenced to the Tahatchee Center.

In the research lab there are several Rhesus Macaque Monkeys that appear in cages. These animals are not actual research animals but were placed in the set cages by trainers and the trainers acted as the lab technicians. The three monkeys used were Squirt, Peewee and Scrappy all between the ages of 3 and 4 and all professionally trained.

Sanctuary:

The Archibald's learn that the area in Africa where Jennie was born has been granted status as a Sanctuary and the decision is made that it is in the best interests of all, for Jennie to return home. Their fear is that she will not assimilate, but Jennie approaches the other chimps as her human family looks on, knowing that she is truly home. The chimps seen in their natural habitat were Bella, Ellie, Kenuzi, Maggie, Tyler, Moglee, and Knuckles. These chimps played together on screen as they do during the natural routine of their lives since they were raised together and naturally social with one another.