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Simian Cinema: Sci-Fi Ape Appreciation
© Rick Klaw
May 12, 2003

For Mark Finn and Chris Roberson, monkey brothers.

The recent announcement by Peter Jackson to remake the classic King Kong got me thinking about my favorite simian films. I'm just nutty for them.

This love has its origins in my childhood. In the mid 70's Sundays were a special day for me. My day started with a trip to the corner 7-11. My mother would leave me a dollar, so I could get her the paper. At the time the Sunday newspaper was only fifty cents, so with the change I would buy either two comic books (which were 25 cents/each) or during baseball season, a pack of baseball cards and a comic book. I would return home in time to catch the ten o'clock showing of an American monster movie. It was always followed by a Japanese monster movie then an Abbott & Costello film. At a very early age, I had found my heaven. During the movies, I would read and re-read my new comics (or study my baseball cards). This went on for about four years. Along the way I managed to see almost every monster movie in existence. (I know I saw all the Abbott & Costellos . . . over and over again.) The gorilla films were always among my favorites.

It wasn't enough. I remember racing home after school to catch the Million Dollar Movie when they did their Planet of the Apes week. I had to beat my sister home. We only had one TV and this was in the days before cable and VCRs. A boy had to catch his apes when he could. If my sister got their first, I was in for an afternoon of Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Yuck! Like most little sisters, she had no taste and simply didn't care what I wanted. (A similar occurrence would happen during the Godzilla weeks.)

When I was eight, I had a chance to see King Kong Vs. Godzilla on the big screen. In my world, this was the ultimate combination. Two great tastes that taste great together! That same summer I saw King Kong Escapes. This Japanese interpretation of the classic gorilla featured a Kong vs. MechaKong battle. I replayed that battle in my mind and with my toys for years to come.

In the immortal words of Eric Cartman, 'That movie has warped my fragile little mind.' I am doomed. Apes are now permanently imprinted on my psyche.

From out of those twisted beginnings, here are my top ten simian movies of all time.

1. King Kong (1933)

It has been seventy years and not only is this still the finest gorilla film ever, but it is also the greatest monster movie of all time. The movie introduced the concept of giant monsters to the big screen and popularized stop motion special effects, which remained the industry standard until the 1980's with the emergence of computer-generated effects. Far from just an effects-laden movie, King Kong used iconic elements, a great script, and a superior soundtrack to re-tell the classic Beauty & Beast. After all it was beauty that killed the beast. Stay away from the vastly inferior 1977 remake and its even worse sequel King Kong Lives.

2. Mighty Joe Young (1949)

From the creators of King Kong comes this fun, charming giant gorilla film. Mr. Joe Young of Africa is brought to the States to entertain the masses. As you can imagine, chaos ensues. This one has it all: giant gorilla versus cowboys, giant gorilla versus lions, giant gorilla getting drunk, giant gorilla saving the day, beautiful woman who is the gorilla's best friend. Unlike Kong, Joe is really just a misunderstood child who wants to go home. No military, no biplanes, but still plenty of action. It's so entertaining that it takes repeated viewings before you notice that Joe changes proportion throughout the movie. Joe is especially of note to monster movie fans since stop motion effects guru Willis O'Brien was assisted by a young Ray Harryhausen, who was working on his first movie.

3. Planet of the Apes (1968)

This is the best science fiction movie of the 1960's. Far more entertaining than Kubrick's overblown (and boring) 2001, Planet of the Apes spawned four sequels, a television series, an animated series, action figures, books, comic books, a recent bad remake and many Simpsons parodies. A dystopian reflection of American society in 1960's, Apes real strength is the brilliant Rod (Twilight Zone) Serling script (which has little to do with the Pierre Boulle's original novel) with the most unexpected, original shock-ending of all time.

4. Tarzan (1999 Animated)

Not only is this a superior animated film, but of the zillion Tarzan films this is the best. The voices are perfect, the action is frenetic yet controlled, and the Disneyfied story contained enough elements of the original Burroughs source material to make it all enjoyable. They even manage, somehow, to make the awful Oscar-winning Phil Collins' soundtrack not too annoying.

5. Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932)

This was the first talkie Tarzan, and was the model for all other Tarzan films to follow. Tarzan, The Ape Man was so powerful and memorable that for most people Johnny Weissmuller is STILL Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan is STILL Jane. This has everything a Tarzan film should have: adventure, excitement, confused white men, monkeys, Africa, lions, and a swimming nude Jane. Be careful of the 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Bo Derek and Miles O'Keefe. Even seeing repeated nude scenes of the beautiful Derek doesn't make this monstrosity watchable.

6. Gorillas In the Mist (1988)

The thinking person's gorilla film, Gorillas In the Mist is the story of Dian Fossey, famed animal rights activist and world-renowned expert on the West African gorilla. Sigorney Weaver received a much deserved Oscar nomination for best actress for her portrayal. The special effects are excellent with some of the finest looking gorillas ever on film.

7. Mighty Joe Young (1998)

Here's the exception that proves the rule. This updated remake of the 1949 classic is actually almost as good as the original. With a beautiful woman, a lovable giant gorilla, a well-meaning cowboy, and a modernized version of the original's plot, Mighty Joe Young is a movie full of thrills and action. The fifteen foot gorilla created by special effects wizard Rick Baker has to be seen to be believed.

8. George of the Jungle (1997)

When I was told that the George of the Jungle movie was not only watchable but pretty damn good, I was dubious. The original cartoon was awful, but mostly thanks to Brendan Fraser's inspired portrayal of the clumsy jungle hero, this movie works. Besides, any movie that has a gorilla voiced by John Cleese can't be all bad.

9. Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971)

The only one of the four Apes sequels that approaches anywhere near the quality and message of the original. This time, two apes escape their doomed world and are sent back in time to present day Earth. They are now the 'apes' on the planet of 'humans.' Malcom McDowell and Kim Hunter are charming, compelling, and evocative as the leads.

10. Son of Kong (1933)

The rushed, humorous sequel to the greatest of all simian films, Son of Kong features more special effects fun by Willis O'Brien, the man who brought us the original. Kong's albino descendant is discovered on Skull island along with prehistoric creatures. Nowhere near the quality of King Kong, this fun movie does offer a lot of good gorilla-dinosaur action as well as several (intentional) laughs.

Believe it or not, there were actually several simian films that just missed the cut. Movies such as Buddy, The Gorilla (1939), The Jungle Book (1967 Animated), and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (which may be the longest movie title to ever feature an ape).

What about King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes? While both of these films hold a special place in my heart, they just aren't that good. There is a big difference between a great movie and one that has sentimental appeal. The films on my list all have qualities that make them good, fun movies with or without the monkeys. King Kong could have been a giant salamander and although physically the film wouldn't have the same appeal, it would still be a classic thanks to the great production values, incredible script, etc. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (which I own on DVD) is fun because it's a giant ape versus a fire breathing mutant dinosaur. The WWE wishes it had stars and action as cool as that. But like the WWE, it just ain't that good.

There are definitely some monkey films that are so horrible that they should be avoided at all costs. Ed, A*P*E, Konga, King Kong Lives, and Congo just to name a few. These films offer little or no enjoyment to even the most diehard monkey fan.

For more on simian cinema, I'd check out Don Glut's (yes, the same Don Glut who wrote The Defenders among other Marvel comics in the 70's) documentary Hollywood Goes Ape. The production quality is poor, but overall it's a very informative film. It is by far the most complete and interesting reference I have found on the subject. No true simian cinema fan should be without it.

Former RevolutionSF fiction editor, Rick Klaw writes the popular Geeks With Books column for SFSite. His first book of essays, reviews, and other things Klaw Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century, will be published in September from Monkey Brains, Inc. His wife doesnít quite get the whole gorilla thing, but she shrugs her shoulders and accepts it.

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