Too much monkey business?
In the Chinese calendar, 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit. On the movie calendar, call it the Summer of the Ape.
The celebration began Memorial Day weekend, with the reappearance of Monkey, the golden langur voiced by Jackie Chan in “Kung Fu Panda 2.’’ Things really get swinging this Friday, when “Zookeeper’’ opens. Kevin James plays a Franklin Park Zoo animal attendant whose social life extends to going to T.G.I. Friday’s with a gorilla (voiced by Nick Nolte). Will it be Applebee’s, if there’s a sequel? Olive Garden?
The week after that comes “Project Nim,’’ a documentary about the famous chimpanzee taught to use sign language. Then next month there’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.’’ The title speaks for itself.
It’s practically “The Descent of Man’’ in reverse. Who needs Aaron Sorkin when you have Charles Darwin as script doctor (or veterinarian, as the case might be)?
When it comes to popular culture we higher primates stick together. Dogs, cats, horses: Sure, great, everybody loves them. Ho-hum. But chimpanzees and gorillas and monkeys and baboons and gibbons, they’re special. How special? We’re talking family.
Think of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,’’ Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey,’’ the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man,’’ Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey.’’ And that’s just music.
This summer’s set of ape movies carries forward a long line of simian cinema. How long? Well, here are 25 examples, in chronological order - and that’s only scratching the surface, or stroking the fur, as the case might be.
No, the Marx Brothers’ “Monkey Business,’’ “Spanking the Monkey,’’ and “Bananas’’ don’t qualify. Maybe “Inherit the Wind’’ should. A lifetime achievement award goes to Cheeta, for all those “Tarzan’’ movies.
BLONDE VENUS (1932) Marlene Dietrich “has sex but no positive gender,’’ Kenneth Tynan famously wrote. In her “Hot Voodoo’’ number here, Dietrich wears a gorilla suit (honest). She has genus but no positive species?
MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) Creationists, have we got a movie for you. In the Edgar Allan Poe original, the murderer is an orangutan. Here it’s mad scientist Bela Lugosi who injects his victims with ape blood to prove human-ape kinship.
KING KONG (1933) “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,’’ producer Merian C. Cooper supposedly promised leading lady Fay Wray. Maybe yes, maybe no. It’s all how you define “man.’’
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) With all due respect to Kong and various other imposing and/or lethal film hominids, the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys are the flat-out scariest simians ever seen onscreen.
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949) What do you do if you want to remake “King Kong’’ but you don’t have, or are unwilling to pay for, the rights? You make “Mighty Joe Young,’’ which itself got remade, in 1998.
BEDTIME FOR BONZO (1951) Yes, yes, Ronald Reagan costars with a chimp. Pretty funny, huh? Well (the Gipper’s favorite monosyllable), we know who had the last laugh. He also managed to get out of the sequel, “Bonzo Goes to College’’ (1952).
MONKEY BUSINESS (1952) Cary Grant seeks a drug to reverse aging. A chimp he’s been experimenting on slips a new formula into the water cooler. Grant regresses, and Ginger Rogers, as his wife, really regresses. The chimps look pretty mature by comparison.
THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) What with
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) All right, the apes make just a cameo appearance. Conceptually, though, it’s a pretty important cameo appearance. Also, the risk of bone-tossing aside, they would make for a whole lot better company at T.G.I. Friday’s than HAL.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968) The simian franchise to end all simian franchises. It’s as if that plaque on the Statue of Liberty said, “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your furry masses yearning to swing free.’’
WHERE’S POPPA? (1970) Speaking of stars wearing gorilla suits (see “Blonde Venus,’’ above), George Segal dons one in this frenetic black comedy, the better to scare to death his mother (Ruth Gordon). She remains unfazed.
PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (1972) There’s a reason people forget there’s a movie version of Philip Roth’s novel. Yes, it’s that bad. No one who has read the book, though, ever forgets Mary Jane Reid, a.k.a. “The Monkey.’’ Karen Black plays her in the movie.
KING KONG (1976) The ad slogan was: “The most exciting original motion picture event of all time.’’ Well, no and no. It did mark Jessica Lange’s screen debut. She took such a critical drubbing it was three years before her next role.
EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) The man with no name meets the orangutan with one. Clint Eastwood had such chemistry with Clyde, the simian in question, that two years later they reunited for “Any Which Way You Can.’’
PROJECT X (1987) What does the Air Force want with a group of monkeys? Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt aren’t sure, but they are going to make certain that none of them are harmed in the making of this movie.
GORILLAS IN THE MIST (1988) Sigourney Weaver plays Dian Fossey, the scientist whose efforts to protect mountain gorillas led to her murder by poachers. Jessica Lange (to avoid typecasting?) declined the role.
THE LION KING (1994) Has anyone pointed out that Robert Guillaume’s Rafiki is more or less a savanna version of his TV character on “Soap’’ and “Benson’’? As mandrill or man, he’s the wisest character on the screen.
CONGO (1995) Things have to be pretty bad when someone as nice as Laura Linney yells, “Put ’em on the endangered species list!’’ and reaches for a flamethrower. Messing with killer apes does tend to bring out the worst in people.
TWELVE MONKEYS (1995) The title comes from the name of a terrorist group, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. More important, Terry Gilliam weaves images of monkeys into many frames. Not a monkey movie, per se, this sure has monkey-movie texture.
GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997) John Cleese provides the voice of Ape. Casting doesn’t come any better than this. At long last, the “Monty Python’’ Minister of Silly Walks has a chance to strut his stuff and get into the swing of things.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) has a pet capuchin monkey. He’s named Jack, in mocking tribute to Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Thereby hangs a tale, or tail, as the case might be.
KING KONG (2005) So what’s a suitable challenge to follow “The Lord of the Rings’’? For Peter Jackson, it’s remaking “Kong.’’ Ideally, the big guy would have climbed Saruman’s tower instead of the Empire State Building, but no such luck.
THE KING OF KONG (2007) Oh, so a miniature gorilla plunked on a model of the Empire State Building counts as a movie ape, and a cute blinking gorilla on a computer screen doesn’t? Consistency, it must be said, can be hard to come by in this world.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007) The daemon of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) is a golden monkey. How nasty is it? If this creature had been in charge of the flying monkeys in “The Wizard of Oz,’’ the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle would be in Wichita.
NENETTE (2010) This French documentary about an orangutan in a Paris zoo is the simians’ simian movie. The only humans seen are reflections on glass. This is a star vehicle all the way, and Nenette is the star. You do not want to mess with her entourage.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.