Animal rights advocates and Tom Hanks fans are eagerly awaiting an upcoming biopic about Harambe, the gorilla that was shot by Cincinnati zoo officials earlier this year after a three-year-old boy entered his enclosure.
Directed by Hollywood veteran Ron Howard, “Harambe” stars Tom Hanks as the beloved silverback whose death sparked global outcry and demands that his life be made into a movie.
Howard says that making a film about a zoo animal required a balance between sticking to the real story and taking small creative liberties to allow Harambe’s story to be adapted for the big screen.
“The first part of the movie is quiet and meditative, with scenes of Harambe romping around his zoo habitat, eating and pooping, the quotidian activities of most zoo animals,” Howard said. “We wanted audiences to get a feel for the real Harambe. How often he slept. His favorite kind of beetle grub to snack on. Did he ever mate? That sort of thing.”
Howard worked closely with screenwriters Doug Gibbens and Nancy Walker to add new characters and plot elements, minor changes that Howard says only serve to make Harambe more relatable to today’s moviegoers.
Because child actors are universally despised, Howard and his team decided that a three-year-old lead character wouldn’t be suitable for the project, so they wrote him as a sulking high-school senior and changed his name to Buddy. The role was given to Zac Efron (“Dirty Grandpa”) on the condition that he lose 40 pounds and shrink five inches to appear younger.
Contrary to real life, in the movie Buddy’s parents are on the verge of divorce. At the urging of their zany marriage counsellor Hyram, played by Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), they take their son on an outing to the zoo in a last-ditch effort to save their family.
The father, Jimmy Strong (played by John Boyega of “The Force Awakens”), is a former FBI agent trying to kick an addiction to the game Candy Crush Saga. The mother, Ellen, played by Chloe Sevigny (“The Brown Bunny”) is an university creative writing instructor who is having an affair with Anton, a wisecracking Russian foreign exchange student.
While in the real story their inquisitive son slips into the enclosure, in the movie he is forced at gunpoint into the gorilla pen by a family of gluten-intolerant neo-Nazis, led by health fanatic Ron Heskin (played by Tobey Maguire of “The Ice Storm”). Heskin had been the target of an FBI investigation years before during which his rural compound — along with tons of gluten-free flour — were seized, events for which he holds Agent Strong responsible.
A poorly planned crime to exact revenge takes on new, frightening dimensions when Ellen’s student-lover Anton reveals himself to be a spy working for the Kremlin. When he activates a sleeper cell of Russian agents living in Ohio to storm the zoo and take hundreds of visitors hostage, Buddy’s parents realize that the only hope to save their son’s life — and their crumbling marriage — is the 440-lb gorilla hiding inside the enclosure.
While every effort was made to preserve Harmabe’s essential “Harambeness,” says Howard, some liberties were also taken to make the ape less one-dimensional.
“We decided Harambe would be more interesting if he could verbally communicate, you know, talk with human words,” Howard said. “Tom [Hanks] and I spent many weeks working that out. Intonation, timbre, accent, not at all obvious.”
In the end, they settled on a 1920s Brooklyn accent infused with an Irish brogue, as it made Harambe seem trustworthy and likeable without being too cute.
“Also, we didn’t want to make him out to be a saint, because Harambe wasn’t a saint, so in the movie Harambe is just a regular gorilla, an overall nice guy, but one who is known to lose his temper and tell a dirty jokes or two.” Howard added. “Oh, and in the movie, he vapes.”
An early draft of the screenplay had Harambe as a Russian defector, with the boy who falls in the enclosure a midget contract killer working for Putin, charged with assassinating the gorilla before he leaks top-secret information to his zoo handler. However, Howard and his team decided that such a story was too far from the truth.
“Harambe wasn’t a hero or a martyr,” Howard said. “He was just an ape who did his best, given the difficult circumstances in which he found himself.”
“Harambe” premieres on Dec. 15 and will be released in select theaters next year.