The Jungle Book (1967)

150120-chattering-monkeys-the-jungle-book.jpgMonkey status: Monkeys are featured in this film

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

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Baloo’s somewhat insensitive use of apeface

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.

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Initial tagline – The jungle is jumpin’

Lincoln (2012)

Monkey status: There are no monkeys featured in this film

Abraham-Lincoln-Ape--127503Spielberg’s Lincoln was hotly anticipated by pretty much the whole world at its release in 2012. Maybe it was the tale of a truly historical dude making the silver screen, or the promise of another crazy inhuman transformation of Daniel Day-Lewis by his creators.

For me, there were other reasons to be excited about this trip to the cinema. I have long been a subscriber to the theories put forward by historian George Kurylenko, even though he was dismissed as a crackpot by much of the academic mainstream.

I first came across his writings in the basement of my university’s library. I was drawn by some crude graffiti somebody had scrawled across the cover of one of his thick doorstopper volumes – Here lies Curious George. Needless to say I was converted that evening there in the library and I never looked back.

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Proof of the Monkey Illuminati?

If you’re not familiar with the works of Kurylenko, providing even a rough summary of the bulk of his theories here would be a Sisyphean task. His work covered the globe and the eons. His expertise was spread out across an entire world and an entire timeline, but was not the thinner for it. Some called him the backward-looking Nostradamus. Personally, I suspect that he was secretly a time-traveller.

My interest in Lincoln was borne from an interview I read with actor Anthony Hopkins, talking about his work on the film Amistad. Somewhere online in the very early days of the internet, I squinted through the dial-up to make out Hopkins’ words. He said that much of Spielberg’s approach to his treatment of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba was informed by some of his favourite bedside reading – Spielberg was a fan of ol’ Curious George himself.

Since then I watched Spielberg’s films with my eyes peeled for little tidbits of Kurylenko lore thrown in for the informed and observant. Mostly there was little to prove my suspicions, but then I heard of his plans to make Lincoln.

Kurylenko’s theory about Abraham Lincoln was way out of left field but also satisfyingly plausible when you sat down and thought about it for long enough.

Kurylenko posited that underneath his trademark stovepipe hat, Lincoln kept a squirrel monkey. The monkey lived under the hat whenever the two were in public together, and it would clutch at his hair as he took sharp corners in order to keep its position.

The public often wondered why Honest Abe’s towering hat managed to keep perched on his head through all kinds of athletics. This was why. The monkey, whose true name is unknown for sure but can be presumed to be named Ape-raham Lincoln, would remain crouched beneath the hat waiting to be of use to its master.

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Honest Ape’s home for all of those years

Kurylenko was of the opinion that Honest Ape helped its master to pen the Gettysburg Address. This little part of his theory isn’t held up by my much real world evidence.

However, there is some that is more compelling – after Lincoln’s April 15 1865 assassination by John Wilkes Booth, passersby reported that a small squirrel-like animal had been seen fleeing from the theatre. It’s unknown what the final whereabouts of Ape-raham Lincoln are.

Spielberg doesn’t show the little monkey on screen, and I think it was the right decision. Abe never showed his little friend in public, so it makes sense that his presence should simply be implied.

But you can see in the consternation of Daniel Day-Lewis’ face as he walks into Congress that something is obviously clinging unseen to the top of his head.

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According to Kurylenko, Reagan was not the first President to spend a lot of time hanging out with a non-human primate

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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Caesar spends the film looking pretty chilly and pissed off about it

Monkey status: Non-human primates are featured prominently in this film

The third instalment of the new Planet of the Apes reboot series, we even get a bit of monkey quotient going in this film. There are no climbing monkeys with tails, but this film is chock full of ape characters. Of all named characters in the film, only three are human. The rest are gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Perfect.

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Remember that scene with the gorilla in Natural Born Killers?

This film was born out of the 1963 novel by Pierre Boule, La Planète des Singes, which detailed the adventures of a group of astronauts who land on a foreign planet where the roles of man and monkey have been switched.

The films deals with this idea, too, with humans suggesting to be regressing back into earlier pre-civilisation versions of themselves and the great apes rising up and taking their place on the planet as the dominant species.

War for the Planet of the Apes kind of glosses over the fact that these apes are from pretty radically different species and have really different social structures and lives in the wild. Some of them would never even come into contact with each other, like Maurice the Orangutan whose ancestors all hail from South-East Asia, and Luca, a Western Lowland Gorilla, who is therefore of African origin. The apes don’t even seem to be aware of some of their aesthetic differences, and just group themselves as one new species – ape.

This suggests that they aren’t even aware of these special differences. Maybe they just think Red the Gorilla is really buff. But then what are they to make of the swollen facial flaps Maurice carries his face between – its normal for an orangutan, but if they are considering him genetically identical to him they must think that he is tragically deformed. Well, they are still nice to him so that’s good.

As can be expected, this film is full to the brim with monkey references. Of course there are little nods to the original 1968 The Planet of the Apes, such as Caesar’s son being named Cornelius. It’s hard to say if the 1968 Cornelius and the 2017 Cornelius are meant to be the same ape – Charlton Heston’s voyage is meant to take place way in the future, right? Presumably questions like this will be answered in the next film, Around the Planet of the Apes in 80 Days.

Another reference are in the ‘Nam style army helmets we see the human soldiers wearing in the very first shot of the film as they stalk the apes through the Northern California woods. Like Full Metal Jacket, this movie features a lot of monkeys. Oh, no, wait, like Full Metal Jacket, the helmets are emblazoned with cute little messages like ‘Monkey Killer’ and ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ – the latter being a film that starred a little-known actor named Roger Reagan starring alongside a chimpanzee.

The apes are also referred to as kongs by the soldiers. This is both another Vietnam War reference and a call-back to our King of all movie monkeys – King Kong.

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Steve Zahn in his role as Bad Ape

Special mention must be made to Steve Zahn in his role as Bad Ape, who shows up out of nowhere wearing a hoodie to be comic relief. Even a total monkey movie is best served with a side of monkey comic relief. And one point he holds binoculars up to his face the wrong way round and his reaction is hilarious.

So for the discerning ape connoisseur, this film is perfect. What other blockbuster film features apes in lead roles on screen for most of its run-time? OK, maybe Space Chimps. But we’ll get to that one soon.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)

DumbDumber.jpgMonkey status: No monkeys are featured in this film

In a Jim Carrey film about two idiots taking a road trip across the United States, you’d think that there were plenty of opportunities for a nice little monkey or ape cameo. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back dealt with basically the exact same movie idea but added in a significant orangutan themed story arc, so it can be done.

However, it seems that when the Farrelly Brothers were putting this film together, all of Hollywood’s notable non-human thespians weren’t returning their calls. It’s a shame really. We’ve seen Jim Carrey alongside capuchins in films ranging from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective all the way to the other side of the genre zoo with Bruce Almighty. In this film, however, he was not given the chance to shine alongside anybody hairier than Jeff Daniels.

There is the diner scene, however. As Harry and Lloyd take a seat in the diner, you can hear Lloyd say to his friend “They’ve got The Monkees, they were a major influence on The Beatles.” So this at least is a small victory for keen monkey audiences.

The Monkees were an American rock band who were hugely popular during the late 1960s, and we here at Is there a monkey in it? can vouch for the fact that most of their popularity probably came straight from that simian-themed name. The fact that they show up in references in movies nearly 40 years after their prime shows their staying power. A staying power which is obviously run by just one fuel – a nicely placed nod to our primate friends.

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We would be remiss if we did not note that the key grip on this film was none other than Dave ‘Monkey’ Youngs, who is perhaps best known for his work as a set carpenter on films such as Lost in Space (1998) and Inkheart (2008). It is unknown if his lavish success in Hollywood is owed to his fortuitous nickname. I think our readers know the answer to that question.

So while there are no hugely obvious monkey pieces to this chess game, we can see from these little bits that there is no film that monkeys have not touched in some way. Look out below for the Monkey-ed version of Dumb and Dumber and see perhaps what could have been. Welp, see you later.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Monkey Status: Monkeys are featured in the film

In 2007 The Simpsons made their way to the big screen with this stretched out episode of material mainly cribbed from Stephen King’s Under The Dome. Interestingly enough, Under the Dome had not yet been published and was languishing under another name in King’s desk drawer, which does ask the question of how its plot got into the hands of the writers of The Simpsons Movie.

Accusations of theft aside, this film comes very close to not featuring any non-human primates at all. Two crucial additions luckily make it worth a watch. First of all, the audience is given an insight into the workings of Homer’s brain. It turns out that his inner monologue has a peculiarly simian quality, as seen below.

Although monkeys with cymbals normally serve to make us feel a bit uncomfortable, the artists of this particular specimen have given us a pure incarnation of joy. Its Chaplinesque expressions change straight from child-like glee while it bangs the cymbals to stern as it warns Homer that he had better pay attention to Marge. One of the great cameos in Hollywood history.

Another character with a brief but important scene in the film is Mr Teeny. Mr Teeny was first introduced to us on December 20th, 1990 as the chimpanzee butler/bodyguard/life coach of Krusty the Klown. Since then he has garnered national attention as well as his own spin-off series, It’s a Teeny Teeny World, which launched in 2001 and ran for seven seasons.

In The Simpsons Movie we see Mr Teeny as an active member of a large and angry mob. He shows remarkable abilities of reasoning and logic for a

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It’s been a long and sometimes difficult road up to stardom for Mr Teeny

lower primate in his decision to join with the rest of the townsfolk against the Simpson Family. Either that or he just

got all hopped up on the noise and the fire and the yelling. Maybe James Lipton will shed some light on these questions of character motivation in Mr Teeny’s upcoming episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio.

National Treasure (2004)

National Treasure (2004)

Portrait of Nicholas Cage with Japanese Snow Monkey

Monkey status: No monkeys appear in this film

National Treasure is a 2004 action-adventure vehicle for Nicholas Cage that kept me at a very consistent level of confusion for two hours. I thought it was aimed at a younger audience so I expected an easily-swallowable romp with exposition that I could understand without Benjamin Franklin’s Rosetta Stone. However this thing was dense, almost Pynchonesque. The plot was a snake weaving through the labyrinth of Minos. I related completely to the confused mug frozen on Justin Bartha’s face throughout the whole thing.

The one thing that I did pick up reliably from my viewing of this enigma was that there were regrettably no non-human primate co-stars in the film. I believe the presence of our hairier cousins would have added a bit of humanity to the cast, at least compared to Nicholas Cage, whose blurry hairline and garbled delivery of lines like “I’m sorry I almost dropped you, I had to catch the Declaration of Independence” make us all seem unworthy of our opposable thumbs.

I did notice Harvey Keitel in some scenes, however, wearing a fake goatee and eyeliner. Keen-eyed viewers may recognise him from the classic 1994 monkey movie Monkey Trouble where he played Shorty, the owner of a Capuchin jewel thief. If Finster the Capuchin had reprised his role in this film and replaced Sean Bean perhaps Disney would have been able to get a bit more life out of this franchise.