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
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
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
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
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.