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'Project X' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 17, 1987

Talk about your animal magnetism: "Project X" star Willie, a medical research chimp turned actor, shames Cheeta -- not to mention Roddy McDowall. With Ewok eyes and DeNiro-like intensity, Willie nearly steals the show from human costar Matthew Broderick.

Except nobody need steal from Broderick, a generous performer who made even Ally Sheedy look good in "WarGames." Here he rejoins the socially conscious creators of that computer thriller, Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, who developed "Project X" with screenwriter Stanley Weiser. The suspense drama is based on real-life military monkey tests, and it's as unabashedly political as "Silkwood" and unashamedly sentimental as "Lassie Come Home." Yet it remains taut and resists the temptation to paint the villains too broadly.

Virgil, our primate protagonist, leads an idyllic life in the wild -- birdwatching and munching termites on a stick -- until one day poachers capture him and sell him to evil American scientists. Luckily the adorable critter is assigned to a university researcher (Helen Hunt) who teaches him sign language. When her grant is not renewed, she tearfully parts with Virgil, who clutches his stuffed toy alligator and huddles in the corner of his cage. She doesn't know he's been drafted for a top-secret weapons-testing program.

Broderick, as wiseacre airman Garrett, grounded and sentenced to monkey duty, befriends Virgil and eventually learns that the chimp can communicate when he signs, "Help! Out!" Once he's come to think of Virgil as a peer, Garrett learns the dark truth about Project X, a program that turns chimps into pilots who never seem to return from their missions.

Director Jonathan Kaplan of "Heart Like a Wheel" has us wrapped around his finger, using just the right mix of music and monkey business to involve us as utterly as children. A fine director of humans, Kaplan is assisted by trainer Hubert Wells (of "Out of Africa") and together they turn a potentially cloying work into a gripping adventure.

"Project X," in fact, is geared to young, impressionable audiences -- though some of the scenes are intense, there is nothing particularly visceral about the military testing. Deadly, yes. Powerful, yes. But you don't have to cover your eyes. It's a variation on the tale of E.T. and Elliott, with Virgil wanting to go home and Garrett having to grow up to save him. The chimps, some six distinctive characters, have us anthropomorphizing like that poor woman who has to feed Morris.

Naturally, Broderick and Hunt do the translations and the audience learns some of the sign language. And the two leads (Hunt contributing a sweet performance, though she gets left out of the middle) are as cute and good-hearted as their chimp costar.

"Project X" takes a look at the ethics of animal pain in human progress, but remains an emotional movie about losing your freedom, about being trapped in a cage of your own or another's making, and finally regaining soul, conscience and spirit. I haven't cried so hard since Old Yeller died.

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