Review: My mother is a gorilla – Apstjärnan (2021)

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My mother is a gorilla – Apstjärnan (2021)

Directed by: Linda Hambäck | 74 minutes | animation, family | Dutch voice cast: Melise de Winter, Wiebe-Pier Cnossen, Ayana Visser, Edna Kalb, Teun Batenburg, Marloes van den Heuvel, Simon Zwiers, Trevor Reekers, Beatrijs Sluijter, Huub Dikstaal, Romy Winters, Mathijs Stoop, Tara Gijsbers, Sandra Kwint, Vivian Andriese van Huiden

Mowgli, the main character from Disney’s ‘The Jungle Book’ (1967), was abandoned by his parents and then raised in the bush by a pack of wolves. Tarzan, who made his first appearance in 1918’s ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ (!), was taken in as a baby after his parents died by the ape Kala, who had just lost her own child. And in ‘Batman Returns’ (1992), we discover that Oswald Cobblepot was such a deformed baby that his parents threw him into the sewer, after which he ended up through the sewer into the penguin colony of Gotham Zoo and was taken care of there. As a result, he became ‘Penguin’, the most memorable villain in the series after The Joker. Human characters raised by animals are not so strange in the movie world. Yet you are always surprised when you are confronted with such a special human-animal relationship.

The Swedish children’s author Frida Nilsson’s work is known for its playfulness and sincerity. In her homeland, she is mentioned in the same breath as master storyteller Roald Dahl. In 2005 she wrote the book ‘Apstjärnan’, which was published in the Netherlands and Belgium under the title ‘My mother is a gorilla (and then what)’. She gives her own twist to this phenomenon. She created an endearing gorilla with a pressing desire to have children who just one day walks into an orphanage to take one of the children with her. Although she does not look threatening, the children are terrified. The gorilla has her eye on eight-year-old Jonna. The mousy leader of the orphanage, Gertie, prefers not to give the girl to the gorilla, but feels pushed against the wall by the overambitious civil servant Tjeerd Volleman. It demands that children are finally adopted. Otherwise, the orphanage will collapse, so that he can set up a lucrative wave pool at that location. So Jonna goes home with the gorilla in her rusty cart.

Gorilla lives on a scrap heap in a clearing on the edge of the forest. It turns out she has transformed that place into a flea market, where she holds sales a few times a week. Jonna is initially wary. She is even shocked when she finds out that the gorilla can talk. However, she soon thaws when it turns out that behind that ‘wild beast’ is a loving, funny and warm personality, with whom she has the best adventures. But can she also take care of Jonna? Especially ‘bad guy’ Volleman and the concerned teacher Gertie from the orphanage have their doubts about this.

‘My mother is a gorilla’ was praised by the press in the homeland of writer Nilsson (Sweden). Thanks to the ‘star power’ of top actors Pernilla August and Stellan Skarsgård, who provided the voices of the gorilla and Tjeerd respectively, the film also did well in the cinema in Scandinavia. In the Netherlands, ‘My mother is a gorilla’ has been included in the program of Cinekid 2021. We know director Linda Hambäck from ‘Gordon & Paddy’ (2017); just like that film, ‘Gorilla’ is a charming and authentic-looking animated film that does not hide its message. Because it is undeniable that the young viewers are being taught a lesson in prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination. But don’t these prejudices mainly live with their parents and not so much with themselves? Because Gorilla, with her ramshackle little car, sweet voice and cheerful yellow dress, doesn’t look that threatening, does it? Why couldn’t she be a good foster mother for Jonna? Kids probably don’t see the problem. That is why there are moments in the film where the gorilla is taunted and laughed at. But whether the animal is frightening or not, the film underlines that in principle it doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s about whether you have a good heart. And that includes the very little ones undeniably.

The animations in ‘My mother is a gorilla’ are decent; not spectacular, but charming in all their simplicity. A bigger obstacle is the narrative pace, which is a bit on the slow side here and there. But for a film that only lasts 75 minutes, it is not such a disaster that sometimes unnecessary time is taken. The fact that Hambäck’s authentic style is popular with many people is evident from the nominations that ‘My mother is a gorilla’ earned at the (animation) film festivals in Annecy and Zurich. The easy pace, the sweet characters Gorilla and Jonna and the good-natured message; it all adds to the charm of this movie. ‘Gordon & Paddy’ was slightly better, but ‘My mother is a gorilla’ is well worth watching.

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