Chimpanzees and other primates have always fascinated humans. Perhaps it’s because they share approximately 98% of our DNA, perhaps it’s because our brain functions appear to be so similar, or perhaps it’s because – on a very basic level – out of all the other creatures in the animal kingdom, their physiology most closely resembles our own.
This fascination with primates is evident in literature, and also reflected in film. Film seems to be a particular apt medium for stories about monkeys, as it provides so much opportunity to focus on the physical similarities between monkeys and men through visuals. It’s rare that a monkey movie is made, without there being a lingering close-up of the creature’s face: whether to demonstrate muzzle, forming an expression that could only be described as a smile; or to focus on the eyes, soft and liquid, gleaming with an undisputable intelligence.
This month has seen the release of two films featuring our furred counterparts: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the original sci-fi series; and Project Nim, a documentary about a baby chimp that was taken from its mother during the 1970s, and raised like a human child. But there have been many other films through time that either focus exclusively on, or feature in some small way, monkeys. It’s a testament to the endurance of these films, and how apes have captivated audiences, that already the plots are so well known.
King Kong (1933)
The story of King Kong has been told many times over – first in 1933, then 1976, then 2005 – but the first film remains the most groundbreaking. It is remembered for its special effects, pioneering in the areas of stop motion and animatronics. The first film is also interesting because it blends the line between ape and man. While Peter Jackson’s 2005 was very firmly a film about an ape, in the 1933 film the giant monkey possessed some very humanoid characteristics. He had a human look about him, and could walk in an upright manner. The character Carl Denham, who discovered him on his prehistoric island, called Kong “neither beast nor man.” The original King Kong taps into society’s interest in man and apes shared roots, brought to life as a monster, on an island trapped in time.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
While I have already mentioned the recent prequel to Planet of the Apes, there was also Tim Burton’s pretty dire 2001 remake – but the original was the first and best. Based on the French novel by Pierre Boulle, the film inspired four sequels made between 1968 – 1973, Roddy McDowall starring in all but one of the films in the franchise. This film features a man, Taylor, whose spaceship crash lands with his companions on a society where apes have developed to become the dominant – and intelligent – species on the planet. While studios in the 1960s were initially not convinced that the film was feasible, it went on to become one of the most popular science-fiction series until Star Wars. Planet of the Apes asks what is the difference between man and monkey – and what’s to say that society will never change?
The 1999 Disney production of Tarzan is the only animated version of the story to ever reach cinema screens. Until Tangled last year, it was also the most expensive Disney film of all time. The plot of Tarzan is well know: a small English boy is cast up on a jungle island, from a shipwreck that killed his parents, and raised by a group of gorillas. After living with the gorillas for many years, he meets a British explorer and his beautiful daughter when they come to the island to study wildlife, and Tarzan falls in love with the young woman. When Tarzan and Jane first communicate, he famously says to her – and this is the sentence that inspired a million jokes about how men have trouble communicating – “Me, Tarzan. You, Jane.” Another film that emphasizes the closeness between man and animal: after all Tarzan is raised by the apes, as if he is one of their own; and Jane falls in love with a man who doesn’t even understand that he is a human.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Okay, so 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t a film about monkeys – it’s a film about, well, who knows what really? Encounters between mankind and giant, black monoliths that are controlling human destiny? But the film deals with the idea of human evolution, and does so most explicitly through the opening section of the film – The Dawn of Man. The audience follows a tribe of ape-like proto-humans foraging for food in the African desert. They subsist on plant matter, and are driven from their watering hole by leopards – until, that is, a cognitive leap occurs, and one of these man-monkeys figures out how to use a bone as a weapon and tool.
The Jungle Book (1967)
Yes, another Disney movie, this one based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling. But perhaps this is a testament to the studio, as they have always understood the power of fable, and the ability of animals and magical creatures to represent the various facets of mankind. The Jungle Book tells the story of the feral child Mowgli, who is raised by wolves in the jungle, and befriends the Black Panther Bagheera and the sloth bear Baloo. The primate in this tale is, of course, King Louie the orangutan. He is at once one of the most fun characters in the story, as well as the most sinister: he is the embodiment of “monkeying around,” but is also obsessed with possessing man’s secret of how to make fire. The section of the film with King Louie includes the ever-catchy song “I Wanna Be Like You.” This was the last film to be produced by Walt Disney himself – he died during its production.
Are there any films about the fine line between monkey and mankind that I’ve missed?