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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!
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."
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."
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."
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."
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 Couturiť 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."
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."
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."