A nearly two-hour assembly of quasi-biographical fluff, Jane’s Journey leads us through Jane Goodall’s greatest hits with adulating talking heads and putatively inspiring, over-exposed eco-scapes. Despite the fact that Goodall narrates the bulk of the material, there are scant details about her concrete contributions to animal and life science save for her observing of chimp-made tools; director Lorenz Knauer instead seeks to bathe us in the down-to-earth demeanor yet larger-than-life celebrity of his subject, interpolating generally awe-struck testimony from Pierce Brosnan, Angelina Jolie, and an oddly puckish Michael Eisner among thumbnail sketches of events from Goodall’s globe-trotting, lecture-giving life.
Beginning with a blurb on the woman’s childhood and early education, peppered with Ken Burns’d vintage photos, the film describes Goodall’s first encounters with Louis Leakey, the archeologist who arranged for and collaborated on her first studies in Gombe. After this cursory contextualizing, we transition to a collage of monotonously photographed speeches given by Goodall in the last five years or so, most of which are pared down to platitudinous sound bytes regarding our strained relationship with Gaia and how the remainder of the animal kingdom might provide metaphorical encouragement for environmentalism and social cohesion. And, naturally, Goodall’s own humanitarian efforts are highlighted to provide evidence of what a single plucky woman can do; the film stops short about halfway through for a montage-y infomercial in support of her “Roots and Shoots” youth program, though it’s not at all clear through the cavalcade of grinning interracial faces interacting with various landscapes what that effort is or does.
Goodall has always been a curiously charismatic presence; Britishly boney and cheeky, she exudes a paradoxically bookish athleticism that makes her seem alien in any context outside of the splendiferous jungles with which she’s become associated. So unsurprisingly, the most engaging material in Jane’s Journey hints at the personal life she’s maintained behind that National Geographic public image; the thought of her scrawny, shrewd-eyed visage pressed to another in connubial affection is somehow deliriously absurd. (She briefly mentions the intense jealousy exhibited by her two husbands, and we immediately pathologize her relationships as extensions of her need to perpetually ape-observe.) But while a few interviewees describe her “beauty” in vapid terms, and how her offbeat femininity has made her a target for skepticism in the field of zoological studies, they consistently fall short of glossing her pulchritude in a manner that might make the movie—surely not documentary—less blatantly promotional. For all of Knauer’s championing of Goodall’s latter day, people-to-people work (one of the most interesting segments follows the scientist to a Native American reservation where she hopes to alleviate an astoundingly high suicide rate), Jane’s Journey feels pitifully lifeless and inhuman.