cage1With a timely release date given the events of the tragedy at Cincinnati Zoo, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ new documentary Unlocking the Cage is a smart, engaging look at gaining legal rights for animals. (BKP: 4/5)

Review by Associate Editor Brigid K. Presecky

Spanning the course of five years, the film centers on animal advocate Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project as they seek legal protection for endangered species. Their painstaking mission takes them to court as they fight for the rights of animals ranging from chimpanzees and apes to elephants and dolphins.

Unlocking the Cage begs the question, “What is personhood?” The blurred lines make for an intriguing argument, particularly at a time when tensions are high surrounding the killing of Harambe, the 400-pound gorilla shot and killed following a three-year-old boy’s fall into the Cincinnati Zoo’s enclosure.

As the heated debate rages on, this documentary sheds a light on the people who do more for endangered animals than posting pictures with long-winded rants on social media. Although the law-jargon can be confusing at times (see: habeas corpus in regards to animal imprisonment), the overall message is clear: change is necessary.  


At times, the film’s pacing slows, particularly as they show Steve Wise on his awareness tour, using footage of his appearances on shows like The Colbert Report. However, this is a documentary that will resonate with any animal lover yearning to be an agent of change.

Set apart from other creature-centric documentaries, Cage makes viewers a part of the story.  Pennebaker and Hegedus include research studies and knowledgeable scientific experts to show how animals think, feel and act as humans do.

They capture their journey on video and edit it together using gruesome imagery of bloodied, innocent animals to get their point across. There needs to be a fight for people – and things – that cannot fight for themselves. As they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words … and these filmmakers let the pictures do the talking.

Now, if only the court system would listen.

© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (5/31/16)


Middle Photo: Steve Wise and a chimpanzee

Bottom Photo: Research study showing primates can learn as humans do

Photo Credits: Pennebaker Hegedus FIlms

Q: Does Unlocking the Cage pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?


Tags: Animal Rights, Chris Hegedus, Cincinnati Zoo, D.A. Pennebaker, Harambe, Nonhuman Rights Project, Steve Wise, Unlocking the Cage

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