Total Recall

Total Recall: Chimp Movies

With Chimpanzee hitting theaters, we run down some of cinema's most memorable banana-lovin' primates.

by | April 20, 2012 | Comments



In what’s becoming an adorable annual Earth Day tradition, Disney will release the latest installment in its series of Disneynature documentaries this weekend: Chimpanzee, which follows the cute and cuddly adventures of an orphaned chimp who finds a new family in the jungle. Critics thus far have expressed the usual annoyance for the de rigueur goofy narration (supplied by Tim Allen), but everyone loves chimps, so we decided this week would be the perfect time to take a look at some other films featuring stars from this particular branch of the simian family. Forget about gorillas, apes, monkeys, and orangutans — this week we’re doing Total Recall chimpanzee style!

Animal Behavior


Starring Karen Allen as a primate researcher who’s so into her work she fails to realize that one of her fellow professors (Armand Assante) is into her, this chimp-assisted romance suffered through a mid-picture change in directors and languished in the studio vault for years before co-star Holly Hunter’s rise to fame finally triggered its brief theatrical run in 1989. Perhaps it was better off in the vaults; as Leonard Maltin sniped, “let us all be thankful that Bonzo didn’t live to see this.”

The Barefoot Executive


Starring a young Kurt Russell in the role that fortunately didn’t kill his career, 1971’s The Barefoot Executive tells the exceedingly silly tale of a TV network mailroom clerk who discovers that his girlfriend’s pet chimp can predict a show’s rating success — and secretly uses the simian’s guidance to jump-start his career. Like most live-action Disney comedies from this period, Executive is decidedly lightweight, but that’s basically the point; as Rob Thomas of the Madison Capital Times wrote (after jokingly referring to the movie as “a trenchant satire on corporate greed”), it’s nothing more than a “Funny, silly chimp movie.”

Bedtime for Bonzo


Think of chimps at the movies, and it’s probably Bedtime for Bonzo that comes to mind — a gently silly 1951 comedy about a college professor (Ronald Reagan) who tries to settle the “nature vs. nurture” debate by proving he can teach a primate to live by human morals. Though Reagan was somewhat annoyed by Bonzo‘s popularity — he neglected to even watch the movie for more than 30 years after its release — it was one of his more successful films, and remains worth a watch for critics like Sean Axmaker of Turner Classic Movies, who wrote, “you might be surprised to discover that the modest little comedy is actually an enjoyable piece of light entertainment.”

Being John Malkovich


How do you add the piece de resistance of weirdness to a movie whose impressive list of bizarre ingredients already includes a magical portal inside John Malkovich’s brain, a puppeteer trapped inside a loveless marriage, and a frumpy Cameron Diaz? By giving Diaz’s character a pet chimp named Elijah, naturally. And not just any pet chimp — this one rescues its owner after she’s locked in a cage by her increasingly frustrated husband. It’s all very strange, but not without cause; as Variety’s David Rooney wrote, it’s “Devilishly inventive and so far out there it’s almost off the scale.”

Bikini Beach

The Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies aren’t exactly known for being critical favorites, and 1964’s Bikini Beach didn’t break the mold; in fact, the New York Times’ Eugene Archer spared only a single sentence for it in his review, dismissing the film as “A horrible juvenile comedy in which surfers fight cyclists and convert their elders to the pleasures of the bronzed physique.” But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention it here, given its plot about a cranky old millionaire who wants to prove that his pet chimp is smarter than all the teenagers on the beach (and gets off to a pretty good start, too). Besides, how could we resist writing about the movie that featured Avalon playing a ridiculous British rocker named the Potato Bug?



Director Bill Couturié won an Academy Award for his documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and several Emmys for his subsequent effort, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. Then he directed Ed, an ostensible starring vehicle for Matt LeBlanc of Friends, and neither man’s career would ever be the same. Expectations were low for this family-friendly comedy about a struggling pitcher and the baseball-playing chimp who helps him save his career, but critics were still appalled when it loped into theaters in the spring of 1996 — and so were audiences, who ignored it to the tune of a paltry $4 million gross. “Some would say that kids may like it,” argued Brad Laidman of Film Threat, “but kids enjoy eating packets of sugar — that’s no reason to encourage it.”

The Fifth Monkey


One of the oddest entries in Sir Ben Kingsley’s filmography, The Fifth Monkey finds him traipsing through the jungle as Cunda, a poor rainforest tribesman who’s trying to save up enough money from his job as a snake capturer to marry a local widow. After being bitten by a snake, Cunda is visited by a quartet of magical chimps, and that’s where things start to get really strange, with gold miners, mercenaries, and other assorted obstacles preventing him from reaching the city so he can sell his simian friends. “The Fifth Monkey is not only simple,” snarked Vincent Canby of the New York Times in his brief, bitingly sarcastic review. “It is also simple-minded.”

Lt. Robin Crusoe USN

There might be a clever movie to be made by updating the story of Robinson Crusoe, but Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. — starring Dick Van Dyke as a Navy pilot who crashes on a seemingly deserted island, makes friends with a genius astronaut chimp named Floyd, and steals the heart of a native girl — isn’t it. Walt Disney picked up a screenwriting credit for this adaptation of the Daniel Defoe novel under a pseudonym, which caused TV Guide to wryly observe, “The story is credited to “Retlaw Yensid,” which is backward for Walter Disney. His name is not the only backward thing here.”


Max, Mon Amour


Movies featuring primates of any kind tend to be on the strange side, but even by the relaxed standards of the genre, Max, Mon Amour is notably bizarre. The tale of a British diplomat (Anthony Higgins) who comes home one day to find his wife (Charlotte Rampling) in bed with a chimpanzee — and then invites her hairy paramour into their home — Max proved difficult for critics to make sense of, but most of them understood enough to know they didn’t like it. Empire’s Kim Newman reacted more violently than most, writing, “Impossible to take seriously or as satire, this film is an embarrassment to humanity and our cousins in the jungle.”

MVP: Most Valuable Primate


Flush with the profits from their golden retriever trilogy, the producers of the Air Bud movies figured one adorably precocious animal was as good as another, and kicked off a whole new franchise with MVP: Most Valuable Primate. It uses the same basic “it’s funny when animals play sports” premise — and, somewhat incredibly, the same human star, Kevin Zegers — but the sight of a chimp playing ice hockey was all they needed to attract audiences, who brought in enough box office to spawn a pair of sequels. Though most critics weren’t swayed, Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times disagreed with his peers, arguing that while the film “may bear the outline of a cookie cutter… at least the cutter wasn’t wielded by a klutz.”

Project X


Long before the Project X starring teenagers acting like monkeys, we had the 1987 version — a sweet dramedy about a wiseacre test pilot (Matthew Broderick) whose goofing around gets him tasked with supervising a chimp project, and ultimately discovers his subjects are being exposed to lethal levels of radiation. His character’s subsequent efforts to save the chimps form the basis of the type of noble, heartwarming tale that filmmakers tend to smother with schmaltz, but director Jonathan Kaplan was careful not to layer the film with false sentiment. As Rita Kempley observed for the Washington Post, “It’s as unabashedly political as Silkwood and unashamedly sentimental as Lassie Come Home. Yet it remains taut and resists the temptation to paint the villains too broadly.”

Space Chimps


It has a pretty terrific voice cast, including Andy Samberg, Patrick Warburton, Stanley Tucci, and Jeff Daniels, but as far as most critics were concerned, 2008’s Space Chimps failed to launch. Despite the promise of a wacky plot outline that sent the descendants of the first astronaut chimps into space in order to fight an alien tyrant named Zartog (voiced by Daniels), Chimps settled for run-of-the-mill animation and stale gags. Sighed USA Today’s Claudia Puig, “Only a truly dreadful story could make 81 minutes seem like an eternity. And Space Chimps is just that leaden experience.”

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


From its beginnings as a bestselling sci-fi novel, the Planet of the Apes series has used apes as a titular catchall — but chimps have figured pretty prominently in the franchise, from the wise Dr. Cornelius to the noble Caesar. And although the original’s many sequels and TV spinoffs were definitely subject to the law of diminishing returns, 2011’s critically and commercially successful reboot restored some simian luster; in fact, TIME’s Richard Corliss said it “deserves to be in the company of the great original Kong.”



Spymate, rhymes with primate — get it? Of course you do. So did director Robert Vince, who so enjoyed working with chimps on MVP: Most Valuable Primate that he went back to the simian well for this family-friendly action comedy about a super-spy chimp who rescues his human partner from Middle Eastern terrorists — and that’s just the movie’s opening sequence. From there, it’s off to the rather convoluted escapades of a teen science prodigy (Emma Roberts) who’s kidnapped by an evil mastermind (Richard Kind) as part of a plot to use her science fair laser drill to cut into the Earth’s core. Toss in a ninja sensei played by Pat Morita, and you’ve got the movie that eFilmCritic’s David Cornelius described as “like having feces thrown at you — in movie form.”

Tarzan, the Ape Man


Johnny Weismuller probably spent more time with chimps than all the actors on this list put together — after starring in a string of Tarzan films and serials, Weismuller was ready to prove he could act in something other than a loincloth, so naturally he starred in Jungle Jim, the first of 13 movies featuring the character derisively described as “Tarzan with clothes on.” Both adventurers were at home in the jungle, and both passed the time with chimp companions — Tarzan with the confusingly named Cheeta, and Jim with his pal Tamba. 1931’s Tarzan, The Ape Man was as Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain XPress put it, “The first Weismuller Tarzan and still one of the best.”

Toby Tyler

Unbelievably, of all the movies on our list, this live-action Disney drama is the only one with what seems like the natural chimp film plot: An adorable little boy (Old Yeller‘s Kevin Corcoran) runs away from his grumpy foster uncle and joins the circus, where he befriends an irascible chimpanzee named Mr. Stubbs. Complete with everything else you’d want or expect from the story, including an evil candy vendor and a pulse-pounding third act in which Mr. Stubbs finds himself on the wrong end of a hunter’s rifle, Toby earned the bemused affection of writers like Howard Thompson of the New York Times, who wrote that it “can boast some of the most engaging, unstrained performers in many a Disney moon.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Chimpanzee.


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