The Jungle Book features some of Disney’s most famous depictions on non-human primates. They even show us a rudimentary society comprising only monkeykind, living in what looks like the ruins of Angkor Wat in the days before it was filled with guys in Bintang singlets.
Mowgli’s story of trying to find his place in the jungle was based on Rudyard Kipling’s experiences in India. It follows that most of the animals in the film are indeed animals found on the Indian sub-continent. The monkey scene, however, throws that way out of wack.
King Louie is obviously an orang-utan, so what is he doing in India? Was he an exile from some distant kingdom in the Sumatran jungle? Was he the survivor of a foiled regicide attempt, forced to leave his land forever with only a cohor
t of his most loyal? He waits in his temple in the Indian jungle like Napolean on St. Helena, craving the red flower of the man-cub’s fire to launch an attack back on his homeland.
In that sense he’s kind of like Danaerys Targaryen – a denied ruler wanting to return to their ancestral homeland with weapons of flame and destruction. Obviously George RR Martin cribbed a lot from this movie.
For some reason, he didn’t carry over the whole jazz influence. Louie is voiced and named after Louis Prima, and Prima wasted no time adding whole pages of scatting to the script. Apparently they initially modeled and named the character after Louis Armstrong, but then thought that they would come under fire for casting a black man as an ape.
Imagine the gruff-voiced Armstrong as King Louie. I can imagine it lending a far more sinister air to Mowgli’s whole encounter with the monkey exiles.
Other notable monkeys in the scene include the white-haired monkey who plays a big leaf like a lute. Most of the monkeys seem to have shocks of human hair, or maybe they are just wearing wigs.
Either way the scene with the monkeys adds a lot of question and subtext to this old Disney classic in a way that only a scene with a bunch of monkeys can. What does it mean? We’ll probably never know. Why do the monkeys want to be like Mowgli anyway? He himself is rejecting his humanity through most of the film. The monkeys, unlike Bagheera and Baloo, have their own community and microcosm of a society. The only thing they are lacking is fire, which they only need for – oh, right. Revenge. All themonkeys want is revenge. A dish best served banana-flavoured.
Monkey status: There are monkeys featured in this film
This film was the progenitor of the hackneyed horror tag-line Be Afraid. Be very afraid. This is a little surprising when you know this film as it is anything but your conventional horror movie. Its plot is a slow descent from the uncomfortable into the hellish, and there is no final girl or bittersweet resolution here. This film is a balls-out journey down the tubes.
Ostensibly it was a remake of the 1958 film of the same name, although both are based on the same short story. This film was directed by David Cronenberg, and it has him all over it. David Cronenberg sees the shape of the human body as a suggestion rather than a rule. The result is a film that has haunted people since it came out, and probably made more vomit.
The role of the monkey in the sci-fi film is often as a test subject, and that is certainly the case here. Ill-fated scientist Seth Brundle (played by Jeff Goldblum) has two baboons that he keeps in cages in his laboratory and one of them ends up being the first victim of his ‘telepods’. The monkeys in this film are Hamadryas baboons, which is famous for its snowy white Krusty the Klown hair.
Brundle is essentially trying to invent teleportation, but organisms keep getting Cronenberged when he sends them through his machine. So this film also features a very gruesome monkey death or two.
The first baboon is placed in the teleportation pod and comes through the other side as a plate of pulled pork. This is the first violence or gore that we see in the film and it sets the stage for all of the wacky shit that is going to follow. But what a sad end for a monkey. Even the poisoned dates of Raiders of the Lost Ark were more humane than this weird gooey end. But that’s Cronenberg for you.
In the original cut of the film, this is the only monkey scene. However, there is a deleted scene that contains one of the most horrific monkey situations in the history of film.
Brundle, already a hefty way into his metamorphosis, uses his telepods to combine the genetic material of his remaining baboon anda cat. The result is a grisly chimera called a ‘monkey-cat’. The thing attacks him, presumably blinded by panic and anguish, and Brundle, probably in much the same state of mind, beats it to death with a pipe. If that sounds like something you would like to see you can check it out here:
So in this film about the borders of what is human being chipped away, monkeys play a pretty significant role. It is easy enough to imagine a script where this turned out a bit differently and it was one of the baboons in the other telepod – there is an alternate reality out there somewhere where there is a film of Jeff Goldblum climbing around a lab in a half-man half-monkey outfit. Out version is of course way grosser.
It is also notable that the soundtrack for this film, by notable composer Howard Shore, contains a track called ‘Baboon Teleportation’. This is probably the only time in history that there is going to be a good reason to call a song that.
Monkey status: There are monkeys featured in this film
My first memory of this film came from surfing the channels on the family television with the volume down and the lights off way after my bedtime some night back when I was seven or eight years old.
I remember stumbling across the scene where an oil-covered zombie, played by Alan Trautman, stumbled out from the corner of a room and says ‘BRAAAAAINS’ in a voice that sounds like Leonard Cohen in slow-motion.
Needless to say it scared the shit out of little me. The figure underneath that mass of black stuff and slimy zombie skin looked emaciated anyway – it seemed to me that even if he took off the costume and did the scene just as a regular human I would have been terrified anyway. He just seemed to live in that border area, the abject. That was a word I probably didn’t know at the time – but it was an idea that we could all sure feel. That’s why dumb horror movies like this stick in our minds forever.
It should be noted that Alan Trautman, the fella beneath all of that make-up, went on to be a star puppeteer in the webseries Simian Undercover Detective Squad as an orangutan detective. So there’s some monkey points straight up.
This one is a bit of a cult classic in terms of dumb horror movies. It was created in part by John Russo, the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead alongside George A. Romero, who we talked about last week in our review of 1980’s Creepshow. After a falling out, the two decided to split the patent of the modern zombie right down the middle and go theirseparate ways.
Romero went off to make Dawn of the Dead and the films that followed it, and they are sternly creepy films with a consistent tone and critical appeal to this day. Russo, along with director and co-creator Dan O’Bannon made this. It doesn’t really have a third act. The protagonist role is handed around like a baton in a relay as main characters get sick or die. James Karen moans like a literal newborn for two thirds of the run-time. It’s a really hot mess.
The gist of the plot is that the workers of a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, inadvertently start off a miniature zombie apocalypse after becoming contaminated with a government-created evil undead toxin. At the same time, a group of punks are getting naked in a nearby cemetery. Then a bunch of zombies show up, people yell ‘Jesus!’ at each other, and then all of the characters die in a nuclear blast. The end.
That’s the whole plot. The tone is so over-the-top that anything more sensical would be nonsensical. The lines are from the mouths of aliens trying to emulate humans after watching the home movies of Tommy Wiseau.
From a monkey perspective, films like this kind of show how we are not so different from our furrier cousins. The characters wail and moan and run around and hit things with sticks. If you squint it looks a little like the first scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Linnea Quigley does an impromptu striptease in a cemetery and her gaggle of friends dressed as 80s stereotypes dance around her hollering like a pack of Chacmas. It’s fun.
You might watch wondering where our monkeys show up. This one is just for the eagle-eyed. Or actually perhaps not even them. Although monkeys are in this film, they aren’t actually even directly visible.
After Bert chops up the animated cadaver, ties its body parts up in rubbish bags and takes them to his friend, Ernie the mortician (notice that the characters are named Bert and Ernie – and Trautman later worked with Jim Henson – curiouser and curiouser), the monkeys have their little cameo.
So in order to create the effect of the body parts moving around on their own accord inside the rubbish bags, wind-up monkeys with cymbals were used. The toys were wound up prior to the big scene and then let to play from inside the bags. The effect is a bunch of bin bags moving around creepily all on their own, and it’s perfect.
So it just goes to show – even when monkeys aren’t taking centre stage in a piece, they still somehow manage to contribute to the best of films. And the best of films this most certainly is.
This film has a lot more hiding under its unturned stones. Take Don Calfa’s character, Ernie. When we meet him he is listening to German War Marches on his walkman. He carries a luger, swears in German and has a picture of Eva Braun on his bulletin board. None of this is noticed or mentioned by the other characters. Did Dan O’Bannon simply decide to heavily imply that one of the heroes of his film is a Nazi?
The more you look into O’Bannon, the more you uncover. He’s probably most famous for writing the original screenplay for Alien. During the 1970s he was a college friend of John Carpenter’s and went on to make similar fare.
But he seems like an eccentric when you look at the internet’s opinion of him. During the making of this film, extras playing zombies were required to eat calf’s brains. Not wanting anyone to have to do something that he wouldn’t do, he organised the cast and crew around the set and had them watch as he ate them himself. OK, I called that eccentric – but he actually seems like kind of a good dude for that.
He eventually died of Crohn’s Disease. And before he died, he said that the inspiration for that chest-burster scene in Alien came from his experiences with it. Watching this film you have to wonder if James Karen’s agonising rigor mortis and Linnea Quigley’s morbid obsessions aren’t somehow connected to the writer’s experiences with chronic illness.
O’Bannon died in 2009, but not before leaving us with a bunch of crazy films, and not least of which one which couldn’t have been the film it was without the participation of a bunch of toy monkeys.
You know, we dish out a lot of criticism on this website for the alleged ‘human-washing’ of major films (see our article on Gravity for further explanation), but Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The End Of The World is a spectacular exception.
We follow Herzog to Antarctica where he provides us with a stunning exposition of the great southern continent. Though as he so often does, Herzog introduces a distinctly existentialist bent to the film.
He arrives at the American McMurdo base and is instantly uninspired. The base is industrial-looking, crawling with Caterpillars, and reminds Herzog of a quarry. He wonders, “who are the people that drive the heavy machinery and what brought them to Antarctica?” It turns out one of them is a Russian philosopher with a love for Greek epics. He answers Herzog’s second question – natural selection.
It’s the people who want to fall off the margins of the map. They all end up at the same place, where all the lines converge. It’s then that Herzog realises he’s in his element.
In the perpetual summer daylight he spends days and nights with various outposts of scientists, studying various seemingly esoteric phenomena. Herzog was drawn to Antarctica in the first place by footage taken under the thick sea ice by his scientist friend. Herzog juxtaposes these fascinating other-worldly environments with the mundane reality of those who study them. We quickly learn that there isn’t a whole lot to do down there.
Much of the scientists’ down-time is spent watching old sci-fi movies on an antiquated computer monitor. A penguin researcher Herzog attempts to interview has in fact all but forgotten how to communicate with fellow humans due to his isolation. Even the penguins he studies are nihilistic.
Encounters at the End of the World is visually perfect and thought-provoking from start to finish, but it’s crowning moment has to be one of cinema’s great ape cameos. The brilliance of the sequence itself is beyond humanly description, though what makes it truly remarkable is its context – you show me someone who expected a brushwork illustration of a chimpanzee riding a goat in a serious documentary about Antarctica and I’ll show you a bald-faced liar.
Monkey status: There is one ape featured in this film
This film was one of those romantic comedies that critics acclaimed as a romantic comedy that deconstructed romantic comedy, like When Harry met Sally and Annie Hall. But at the end of the day those films are still just rom-coms. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, actually. I forget my point.
OK the point was that I remembered seeing this film when it came out and I had this distinct memory of Joseph Gordon-Levitt riding a bike around anempty downtown Los Angeles at night with a little rhesus monkey poking its head out of the basket like a furry ET. So of course I had to go back and verify the memory.
I don’t know what movie I was watching in 2009 but it definitely wasn’t this one. JGL’s bike doesn’t even have a carrier basket in this film!
This film has a lot of Regina Spektor music and conversations about greeting cards that I didn’t really understand. It doesn’t have many monkeys. They could have included a scene between Tom and Summer where they go on a date to the zoo or something, it wouldn’t even have seemed shoehorned!
Actually, on that note – the characters are seen watching The Graduate, a movie which contains a scene identical to the one I just described. We could have watched Tom and Summer watching a movie with a monkey in it. That would have been several levels of monkey-ness.
So I watched the credits roll with a sinking feeling. My mind seemed to have artificially inserted a monkey into my memory of a film again. It seems to be happening more and more these days.
I wasn’t going to accept that grim reality just yet, though. I rewound right back to the start and sat through the film’s 95 minute runtime again. And again. And again. Until the sun was peeking in between my banana print curtains.
It was mid-afternoon before I hit paydirt.
Tom is hanging out with his friends Paul and McKenzie at a cafe cum arcade somewhere in Los Angeles. They are lounging over an old table-style arcade machine with coffees in their hands, talking about Tom’s crush on Summer. I sat there with my eyes glazed over watching this scene for the umpteenth time, despair beginning to ensnare my heart in her cold tendrils.
And then I heard it – if you listen to the background noises beneath the banal dialogue spouted by Tom and his co-workers, you’ll hear it, too:
The arcade machine that Tom and his friends are hanging out over is Nintendo’s 1981 classic, Donkey Kong. The game is famous for being the first ever appearance of Mario, Nintendo’s flagship character. But the antagonist and titular character of the game is what interested me.
Donkey Kong is a giant gorilla wearing a red necktie and nothing else. He was based in part on King Kong and Bluto from Popeye, and he is undoubtedly, incontrovertibly, undebateably, a non-human primate.
So it just goes to show. Never stop looking for the monkey in the movie. He may be hiding, but he will reveal himself to you if have the patience and the wherewithal to keep your vigil as long as it takes. Now I need some sleep.
Monkey status: One ape-like creature is featured in this film
Recently George A. Romero died at the age of 77 of lung cancer. To honour his legacy, Is there a monkey in it? has decided to take a look at some of his films. Acursory glance at his filmography revealed Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) but to be honest, that just seemed like low-hanging fruit. Is there a monkey in that movie? I mean, obviously.
So we checked out some of his other lesser known classics. He was best known for his zombie flicks such as Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the one that started the whole walking dead phase, Night of the Living Dead (1968).
What not of people know is that he also directed a rom-com in 1971 called There’s Always Vanilla, about a guy leaving the army and then hilariously moving back home to Pittsburgh and relying on an old lady for total physical, emotional and spiritual support. I don’t know, I haven’t seen it – I was told there are no monkeys in it.
What we did go back and dig up from its shallow grave was 1980’s Creepshow, a horror anthology film adapted from the works of Stephen King. Most of this film isshockingly monkey-less. We begin with a wrap-around narrative about a kid who likes to read horror comics. The little kid playing him is in fact Joe King, Stephen King’s son. Nowadays we know him better as author Joe Hill – he wrote that film Horns where Daniel Radcliffe walked around with inexplicable devil horns the whole film. Weren’t any monkeys in that one either.
King himself also shows up as Jordy Verrill and proves to everyone why he probably shouldn’t be on screen for anymore than a cameo. His acting co-star is a space fungus growing on his face and unfortunately it comes off more believablethan the Crimson King himself. When he shows up as a character in the upcoming Dark Tower movie franchise they are going to have to figure out a solution. He can’t do it himself. Maybe Jason Segel can sew Stephen King’s face over his own likein Face-Off. (Weren’t any monkeys in that one either, were there!)
But enough about movies that don’t have monkeys, because Creepshow ain’t one of them. While four of the five segments are totally monkey-less, The Crate pulls the entire film back from the brink.
Shot at Romero’s alma mater, Carnegie-Mellon University, this is a simple tale about a big ol’ box that’s been under a stairwell for 147 years. Inside a monstrous gorilla-like creature is discovered with an unmatched bloodlust. Another potential job for a simian actor squashed – the ape is played here by a puppet (which I might add, is almost indistinguishable from the real thing!)
The ape in the box kills anybody who comes close. The plot has it serve as a kind of physical manifestation of the protagonist’s murderous impulses – Henry Northrup, played by Hal Holbrook, is a meek and mild lecturer at the university who totally detests his wife, to the point of showing his gory daydreams of killing her in cold blood. When he learns of the creature in the box he oddly sees it as an opportunity to get his wife off his back – by having the thing rip her to bits and then eat the remains. Simple and understandable scheme.
I don’t know how your average ape would feel about being portrayed in such a bloodthirsty way, but I guess we do have our human serial killers in films and we don’t complain about them. Maybe it was high time for a Gibbon Voorhees or a Hannibal Lemur.
So if you have a jonesing for something monkey-like pulling a bunch of people into a big crate and then tearing them to bits, look no further. One of the many sadnesses of Romero’s passing is that we will never see this creature’s future through his eyes. Where does it go after its escape? Are there more apes out there with similar bad attitudes?
I mean, it’s sad we won’t say that, but I guess it’s sadder for his kids and stuff. Sorry if Isounded insensitive. It’s a bummer. Lung cancer, ay. Sorry.
Monkey status: Non-human primates are featured prominently in this movie
To celebrate the release of War for the Planet of the Apes, we here at Is there a monkey in it? decided to go way back to where it all began. Well, not quite – this monkey series really began with Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel, but this is a movie blog not a book one so we can’t talk about that. There are rules.
This is one of the famous depictions of primates in Hollywood. Everybody knows a shot or a line from this classic, from “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” to the iconic shot of the run-down Statue of Liberty.
As a result we all basically know the plot. A team of astronauts in far-off space crash-land on a mysterious planet that turns out to be run by a species of humanoid apes.
Watching this film makes you miss the physical effects of an earlier Hollywood. We are all erect and excited about the visual wizardry of Weta Digital, as soon in the newest series of film, but there is still something missing. Our brains know on some level that we are looking at nothing at all. In this film, the gorillas and the orangutans are real. You can basically smell them through the screen.
The film is a polemic largely on different groups dehumanizing each other. Taylor, our human hero, takes the role of a lab monkey and is prodded and probed and generally treated like a beast. The apes react to him with disgust and patronising comments:
Lucius: Why did you do that? Scrape off your hair?
Cornelius: It makes you look somehow … less intelligent.
At its most superficial level, the film puts us behind the eyes of the zoo animal. We experience Taylor’s losing end of the role reversal with him.
One thing interesting about the film is how they depict the ape civilisation. It is at anachronistic and varied levels of technological development and sometimes seems to have a heavy Greco-Roman classical influence. This hodge-podge creates a new and fresh vision o
f culture which asks the question – say monkeys do go on to take over from us as custodians of this soil, what does that look like? What is monkey culture? Monkey language? Monkey rock’n’roll? Monkey jazzercise? Monkey chia pets? Monkey improv?
In deleted scenes Charlton Heston went through all of these ordeals. Rumour has it that a scene of him appearing on a monkey talk show was left on the cutting room floor by director Franklin J Schaffner.
In the film it seems like everybody has a reason not to speak. Taylor has a throat injury that renders him mute through about half the film and his co-pilot Langdon is lobotomised by the apes, taking away his power of speech.
Nova, the woman that Taylor ‘befriends’ in the zoo, never says a word.
Well, her character is actually really problematic. All that she is given to do in the whole film is look sexy. Literally. Her character has no lines, no important actions, just follows Charlton Heston around like a pet. That element was kind of creepy, and with only one other speaking female character in the whole movie, it is safe to say that it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test. I guess that hadn’t even been invented yet.
But when it comes to the Monkey Bechdel Test (that is, the test of monkeys appearing in scenes with no humans and not talking about any humans), this film passes with flying colours. So for that, as well as the trippy desert cinematography and awesome kind of sun-drenched psychedelic gladiator set designs, this movie is a must-see.
And of course the film did give us this: The Planet of the Apes Musical, in which Phil Hartman actually does a really good Charlton Heston impression. I love you, Dr Zaius!
Raiders of the Lost Ark was created an homage to old Hollywood serial heroes like Doc Savage and… um… Uncle Scrooge. It followed that such a script would take its hero to exotic locales like Peru, Egypt and… that big room with all the boxes of artefacts.
Perfect opportunity for a monkey role. The Cairo scenes have one of the real classics of the genre. The capuchin that follows the main characters around for a few scenes is enshrined in the hearts of the world.
George Lucas’ first ideas for the script involved the monkey giving a Hitler salute. While this would have been a novel experience for audiences, one has to wonder exactly how an animal trainer would get the animal to perform the gesture. And while they were at it, why don’t they make it goose step as well?
Extensive research by the team here at Is there a monkey in it? found that the Sieg Heil effect was created by hanging a grape off a fishing rod and dangling it above the monkey’s head. That’s what they call method acting.
We are treated to a monkey character that isvillainous. He is shown hanging out with an Egyptian fellow (played by the multi-talented Vic Tablian, who also played a Peruvian mercenary in the same film) moonlighting as a Nazi henchman – by proxy that is a Nazi monkey.
You have to wonder what the life path was that lead the character to this place. Did Lucas have any ideas of back-story that he may h
ave shared with the actor? Maybe the political vacuum and economic wasteland of post-war Germany had driven this monkey to skid row, and reactionary politics were the only weapon that his limited brain function allowed him to see that he could even envisage fighting back with. Sounds sort of relevant to certain events of this year, doesn’t it?
So somehow that little Nazi monkey represents all of us. Searching for the way through this confusing world while holding onto the shreds of dignity we have left. But there’s a warning in there for our inner Nazi monkey. The poisoned dates.
It’s the monkey that takes the forbidden fruit in Sallah’s house and dies alone and uncared for on the floor, serving only as a warning to bigger animals that danger is afoot. If we keep on going in this direction, we too will be nothing but a little capuchin corpse on the sandy floor of an Egyptian man’s apartment.
But all that gross polemic aside, the monkey is really cute. It really pulls at your heartstrings that you don’t know whether to cheer for it or root against it. He may be on some level working for some pretty evil people, but he doesn’t know that! He’s just doing what he’s been trained to do, right? That’s what I want to believe.
But taking the monkey’s agency away in my head to preserve its morals kind of makes his story even sadder. He reaches for that poisoned date without the space in his head to conceive that it might pose a danger to him. His death is uncelebrated, his sentience feather dusted away into the great abyss of post-life with barely a word from Indiana Jones.
On a cheerier note, the monkey was voiced by the third highest grossing actor in Hollywood history, unbeknownst to many. In his turn as the ill-fated simian’s shrieks and cries, Frank Welker wowed critics – particularly with his soliloquy scene. But one has to wonder – are we humans really better at making monkey noises than the monkeys themselves? I knew human-washing would rear its ugly head again before too long.
Monkey status: There is a monkey prominently featured in this film
The second instalment of the Hangover trilogy, this film met huge success through copying by rote the exact script of the first movie and moving the events across the world to Bangkok.
The first film had a tiger in it, so it follows that they had to imitate this and have some kind of exotic side character lingering on the sidelines of Alan Garner’s antics. Monkey see, monkey do, after all – for this role they brought in the Meryl Streep of the monkey world, Crystal the Capuchin.
Crystal was born in 1994 in Florida. When she was just two years old, an animal trainer from Tinseltown showed up in her orphanage with lots of promises about the future. Before she was three years old, Crystal was working in animal shows at Universal Studios. She was given starring roles in the amusement park’s live shows and name taken from country singer Crystal Gayle. Truly a Horatio Alger story for the present day.
We’ve already gone through some of her credits here on our American Pie review, but it remains to be said that Crystal is one of the most-recognisable non-human primate faces on the silver screen nowadays.
Her role in this film is up there. She appears across nine different scenes and has more lines than Justin Bartha. For the filming she was flown first class across the Pacific to Bangkok, where she visited a monkey sanctuary to which she had previously donated all of her earnings from Night at the Museum.
This role was in many ways a turn up for the books for both Crystal and all of monkey-kind. Although she was playing a comic foil in a big-budget Hollywood comedy and her part of the script mainly relied on pratfalls and physical gags, she leant a heavier pathos to the character by exploring its back-story and fleshing it out on set with the other actors.
Rumour has it that she developed a nicotine addiction after smoking in almost every scene she appeared in. Director Todd Phillips denied this to PETA, however the group were barred from set. This resulted in the film having its No animals were harmed during the making of this movie disclaimer revoked – we can make of that what we will.
Although it has not been publicised how much Crystal made in this picture, we have to wonder what else happened on set that caused PETA and the American Humane Association to kick up such a fuss about her treatment. But Crystal has kept her mouth shut, giving minimal interviews about her experience on set and seeming glib and dismissive during press junkets.
She appeared in this film alongside old friend Ken Jeong, with whom she had previously worked together on the NBC sitcom Community, where she played the character Annie’s Boobs. In an interview with USA Today, Ken Jeong was quoted as saying “She’s amazing. She’s not a monkey, she’s an actor. And quite possibly the best actor I’ve worked with.”
It is safe to say that we haven’t seen the last of Crystal the Capuchin. Although she declined a cameo in the third Hangover film, Todd Phillips has expressed a desire to work on a spin-off prequel detailing her ascent to the head of the Russian Mafia in Bangkok.
From her humble beginnings in Florida to her life in her Topanga Canyon Mansion, the story of Crystal is a point of aspiration for any young simian thespian.
This 1995 film from director Joe Johnston was a tale of a demonic board game opening a portal between some parallel dimension jungle world and a small New England town. Kind of a Stephen King meets Tarzan kind of riff looking back on it.
For people who were kids around this time, this film is looked back on pretty fondly. I can remember feeling terrified at the lion in the next room and the carnivorous plants, all pretty well-tread tropes of the ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ narrative wheelhouse.
One interesting thing going on here, however, is the way that monkeys are treated. Obviously, they appear pretty prominently in the film. It is unclear which species are depicted, as they appear in pretty shoddy mid-90s CGI.
We don’t know which country they come from, though the presence of rhinos and lions does suggest that they are meant to be of African origin. They have aesthetic similarities to Vervet monkeys of the sub-Saharan region – however they are significantly larger and more muscular.
But these monkeys are evil! That’s what set them apart from other monkeys of Hollywood. Normall they are friendly or at least comical. These monkeys are little villains, throwing knives at children and stealing police cars. They are agents of chaos from an evil jungle realm and as a little kid they scared the shit out of me.
But they look like cartoon characters. Everytime we see CG primates like this, we have to ask the question, where was Crystal the Capuchin? Where was Blake Vesuvius? Where were a host of other working actor-monkeys – these cartoon caricatures took the banana money right out of the pockets of their real and breathing co-monkeys.
Hollywood has to stop these CGI immigrants from taking the jobs of hard-working American monkey actors. As the cost of visual effects have decreased, it has become harder and harder for monkeys to make their way in the movie industry.
Take the story of Kari the Barbary Macaque – a young ape from Lima, Ohio, who spent the last of her savings on a cross-country Greyhound and two weeks in a YWCA in Burbank. One month later she was arrested for monkey prostitution in the carpark of a Taco Bell in Palmdale.
This story has been repeated too many times. What was once a thriving industry of working, journeymen ape stars has become a fight over a few scraps. Kari found no opportunities where they were once plentiful. She was dismayed by packed waiting rooms at auditions filled with young primates pinning all of their hopes and dreams on the last stop before skid row.
Industry leaders like Joe Johnston are responsible for sinking the dreams of these young hopefuls. And looking at his monkeys as they awkwardly grasp a shotgun in their uncanny valley borne hands, we can see an inferior product mired in its bygone time. Kari the Macaque could have made this film timeless.
Another monkey to look out for actually begins the movie human. As a punishment for trying to cheat in the eponymous board game, Peter, the youngest kid character, is cursed to turn into a monkey. Interestingly here, monkeys are again treated like they are little goblins or something.
The makeup crew seems to have taken a lot of cues from Michael J Fox’s Teen Wolf, and the end result is that the half-monkey half-boy seems a bit more canine than simian. However, we here at Is There a Monkey in it are willing to let that slide – the more monkey business, the better, and they did try.
It should also be mentioned that this film features Robin Williams, who received before his sad and untimely death a ‘Jane Goodall Foundation Award for Generally Being a Good Mate to Lots of Primates’. Perhaps sensing an inter-species kinship due to their shared extreme hirsuteness, Williams was always close to his monkey co-stars. He can be seen in the following video hanging out with his buddy, Koko the talking gorilla.
We can only wonder what Williams thought of his CGI co-stars, and if he had any friends of his own that could have come in and done a better job. In the worlds of what ifs, this is one that keeps our editors-in-chimps up at night.
Because as we have learned through our investigations, the world of monkey cinema is often a bittersweet love letter to the what-could-have-been.