Ten great ape movies

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Time Out Film picks ten of its favourite films featuring apes

You wait all year for a good ape-based romp, then two come along at once. This week sees the release of a pair of eerily similar primate pictures from radically different British directors: Rupert Wyatt’s blockbuster prequel ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and James Marsh’s incisive doc ‘Project Nim’ both deal with man’s uneasy relationship with the animal kingdom, and how, for all their apparent similarity to us, an ape is still a wild animal.

It’s not a new idea. Indeed, throughout cinema history, the idea of pairing up a hirsute, hulking hominid with a human sidekick has been the source of countless classic movie moments. Tom Huddleston and Adam Lee Davies select ten of the best. Feel free to tell us your favourites too.

King Kong (1933, M C Cooper and E B Schoedsack)

Hairy hero: Mountainous, misunderstood mass of animatronic emotional contradiction, Kong.

Sapien sidekick: Fay Wray’s chimp-teasing good-time girl Ann Darrow.

Monkey business: Heroes don’t come much more tragic than poor old Kong. Once upon a time he was the undisputed king of his own island kingdom, the biggest fish in a small but cosy pond, whiling away the days fighting T-Rexes and giving the dubious Um Bongo native Johnnies a good scare. Now here he is, stuck on top of the Empire State Building being machine-gunned by biplanes and shouted at by a cheap showman in an even cheaper suit. And all for the love of a woman! There’s a lesson here, lads: if you can hold her entire body in the palm of your hand, it probably isn’t meant to be.

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The Jungle Book (1967, Wolfgang Reitherman)

Hairy hero: Self-proclaimed Jungle VIP, King Louie.

Sapien sidekick: Beatle-cut mancub Mowgli.

Monkey Business: The King of the Swingers gets up to all sorts of debasement in Disney’s feature-length animation highpoint. From cocking a snook at down-home Middle-American values with his solid gone inter-species scat-jazz freakouts to tempting the very wrath of God with his Promethean desire for man’s red fire, it is clear that Louie’s manifesto is to shake things up on a seismic scale. But this is Disney, and despite the unusually groovy catch-the-wave '60s feel that pervades Louie’s scenes, his ultimate reward for such cosmic insouciance is to have his kingdom crumble around him. Take that, beatniks!

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Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J Schaffner)

Hairy hero: Herne Hill’s finest, Roddy MacDowall, as long-suffering anthropologist Dr Cornelius.

Sapien sidekick: Charlton ‘cold dead hands’ Heston as time-lapsed man-of-the-past George Taylor.

Monkey business: The primmest and politest of all the chimps in Ape-town, Cornelius is a kind of futuristic cross between Desmond Morris, Kenneth Williams and a shagpile carpet: he’s furry, he’s educated, he’s ever-so-slightly fey. Which is a problem when his opponents in the race for scientific truth and human liberation are hulking orang-utan ultra-conservative (oh-oh-oh) Dr Zaius and his army of damn dirty gun-toting gorilla muscle men, while his only allies are bronzed Oscar model Heston and simpering oversexed species traitor Zira. Chin up, Cornelius! They’ll never make a monkey out of you!

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

Hairy hero: Daniel Richter as budding sci-fi nerd man-ape Moon-Watcher.

Sapien sidekick: At this stage of evolution he’s basically his own human companion.

Monkey business: For the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence that opens his sprawling psychedelic space opera, Kubrick took a leaf out of Ken Loach’s book for an ultra-realist, pre-kitchen-sink look at human life back in the day, before all that fancy modern clothes and cooked food nonsense became fashionable. They had it tough in them days: nowt to eat but cold scrub grass, a leopard on every corner, roving gangs of delinquent simian hooligans and weird obelisks waking you up every night with their unearthly shrieking. Apes today, they don’t know they’re bloody born.

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Every Which Way but Loose (1978, James Fargo)

Hairy hero: Clyde the honky-tonk orangutan.

Sapien sidekick: Clint Eastwood as two-fisted Zen hayseed Philo Beddoe.

Monkey business: He’s hairy, long-limbed, bone-headed, tough, cool under pressure, likes the odd beer, loves country music, is handy in a dust-up, has an eye for the ladies and knows his way around a sly sight gag. And that’s just Clint! His coconut-crackin’ co-star Clyde, meanwhile, is all this and more in Eastwood’s dubious but enjoyable mix-up of country-fried cartoon mayhem, alarming bare-knuckle boxing and children’s hour monkeyshines. Quite the smoothest operator in a film full of gurning bikers, rootin’-tootin’ grannies and Sondra Locke, Clyde is quite simply a simian for all seasons.

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Trading Places (1983, John Landis)

Hairy hero: The unnamed but unforgettable New Year’s gorilla on the night train from NYC to Washington DC.

Sapien sidekick: Richard Vernon’s seedy corporate deep throat Clarence Beeks.

Monkey Business: Even in today’s cynical, seen-it-all world, if there’s one thing guaranteed to raise a hearty laugh it’s the sight of a dude getting raped by a wild animal. In ‘Trading Places’, comedy god Landis opts for the time-honoured interspecies violation scenario: guy dresses up as animal for costume party, real animal mistakes guy for cute member of opposite sex, animal makes gooey eyes, guy can’t escape, et voilà! Bestial penetration. This time around, the blow (oo-er) is softened by the fact that a) the gorilla has a pair of amusingly sozzled human handlers, allowing for a classic ‘double vision’ gag, and b) the victim in question also played that nasty principal in ‘The Breakfast Club,’ who damn well deserved a powerful primate slammin’.

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Max Mon Amour (1986, Nagisa Oshima)

Hairy hero: Prehensile pleasure-giver Max.

Sapien sidekick: Bored, experimentally inclined trophy wife Margaret (Charlotte Rampling).

Monkey business: It’s the last taboo! (Well, apart from all those other taboos). Interspecies romance is still frowned upon in polite circles, and the social scene of unhappy diplomat’s spouse Margaret is no different – you’d expect the idle rich to get a kick out of Madge’s bit on the side, but no, they’re just a bunch of judgmental busybodies. Master of provocation Oshima’s eyebrow-raising comedy-drama doesn’t get a lot of exposure these days – it’s become one of those films that’s more talked about than seen. But perhaps its hardly surprising – would you take your date to a movie about a posh chick bumping uglies with a chimp? Thought not.

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Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

Hairy Hero: Amy the vocoder-assisted gorilla.

Sapien sidekick: 'Nip/Tuck' star Dylan Walsh as mullet-haired primatologist Peter Elliott.

Monkey Business: A Michael Crichton adaptation featuring technologically upgraded evolutionary also-rans going on the rampage? Man’s rapacious greed mocked by the vagaries of nature? Best-laid plans going to waste against a paradisiacal tropical backdrop? No, not ‘Jurassic Park’, alas, but a hokey, camped-up spin on Crichton’s duff talking-ape novel ‘Congo’. Illegal diamond mining in West Africa forms the window dressing here, but the whole film is merely a long-winded, overplotted lead-up to an epically weird finale in which cutesy simian chatterbox Amy is the only thing standing between a livid band of mutant silverbacks and one of the greatest ensembles of B-list acting talent – Bruce Campbell! Joe Don Baker! Ernie Hudson! Tim Curry! Joe ‘Joey Pants’ Pantoliano! – ever assembled. It’s not entirely clear who wins this fateful stand-off, but audiences certainly came out on the losing end.

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Dunston Checks in (1996, Ken Kwapis)

Hairy hero: Dunston: Jewel-thief, high-class masseur, orang-utan.

Sapien sidekick: Spent Euro jet-trash Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett)

Monkey business: It might be overstating the case, but just as ‘Star Wars’ spawned a raft of cheapjack sci-fi and ‘LOTR’ has produced endless and ongoingly daft sword ‘n’ scenery howlers, so the success of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ in 1988 would seem to have alerted the Hollywood brain trust that shoehorning a couple of hairy fellas into your movie might well make for a box-office home run. So it was that we had to endure the likes of 1996’s Matt LeBlanc+chimp+baseball no-no ‘Ed’, apes-on-ice hockey-shocker ‘MVP: Most Valuable Primate’ – starring no-one you’ve ever heard of – and whatever the hell ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ was all about. But worst of this primate period was ‘Dunston Checks in’, a dire family comedy starring Sam the orang-utan as a reformed jewel thief getting into bush-league scrapes in Jason Alexander's upscale hotel. Thank god Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ reboot was just around the corner. What? Eh? Oh.

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon)

Hairy hero: Barrel-flinging 8-bit killer gorilla Donkey Kong.

Sapien sidekick: Genial thirtysomething nerdlinger Steve Wiebe.

Monkey business: Blue-collar concerns of a different hue in Seth ‘Horrible Bosses’ Gordon’s riveting documentary on hi-score videogaming in which Nintendo’s damsel-kidnapping, plumber-stomping simian takes centre stage. Out to smash the Big Ape’s top score is affable family-man gamer Steve Wiebe, who must contend not only with Kong himself but the machinations of console rival and all-round dark prince – not to mention hotshot condiment entrepreneur – Billy Mitchell in his world-record attempt. Kong is thus presented as an ingenious metaphor for the sentries of an impregnable old guard gaming elite that Wiebe must negotiate on his compelling underdog journey through the belly of the beast.

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Tell us your favourite ape movies in comments below.


Users say

2 comments
Harvey
Harvey

What about Mighty Joe Young?

jane
jane

"Dunston" from Dunston Checks In lives at the CenterforGreatApes.org, a sanctuary that is supported through donations and memberships. When you go to the website - for Dunston - read the bios of both Geri and Sammy.