For a few, brief, shining minutes, man-meets-monkey feel-good family drama Gigi & Nate looks like it will push beyond its movie-of-the-week setup. Veteran cinematographer Elliot Davis has worked with Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, and there's an undeniable flair in how he catches high schooler Nate (Rowe) out doing some cliff jumping with friends, a dive that leads to a shocking case of meningitis that leaves him paralyzed, which in turn leads to him getting an assistance monkey: a capuchin called Gigi. Cherish those moments, because Gigi & Nate quickly becomes exactly what you fear it is.
The dragging run time will make you yearn for the 90-minute brevity of a Hallmark Channel movie – which probably would have served the story better. Gigi literally does not leave her cage for the first hour, and only then to be chased around the house (or at least a CG version of the actual capuchin) by the family's hound. Hijinks and hilarity fit the somehow treacly feel-good vibe of the endless opening, but are wildly at odds with the rest of the story, in which a bunch of cartoon animal rights activists besiege Nate's affluent middle-class family in their gated home. They're rigid tut-tutting villains, led by Welker White as a cliche who gets a name but may as well by called Karen-Bot 3000. Of course they get hosed off the property by Diane Ladd as Southern grandmother stereotype Mama Blanche, who pops up to deliver folksy homilies – which is basically what this entire film is. One long, predictable story about how we don't save animals, they save us.
It's an inexplicable change of pace for director Nick Hamm, who is better known for grittier material like Neil LaBute's Full Circle, and one could only wish there were even flashes of his better work. Lumpenly scripted by Friday Night Lights writer/producer David Hudgins, it's a baffling disappointment, one that rejects any nuance or even a hint of balance (Animal rights activists bad! Veterans, of whom there are many to simply serve as background set dressing, good!). It undercuts its own point when it comes to Gigi, who seems to be there mostly for cutesy sight gags. And if anyone could be expected to bring at least some tension and texture it would be Hamm, the director of Irish political drama The Journey; instead, the narrative descends to a community theatre version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as Nate tries to convince Tennessee lawmakers not to ban assistance animals.
That political clumsiness wouldn't be much of an issue if Gigi & Nate weren't a clear advocacy piece. It's a call to action with no banner behind which to rally, sanitized to the point of being anodyne. No one's demanding a new The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but our four-pawed friends deserve so much better.
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