‘Going Ape!’ Is the Midnight Movie Skeleton Key That Unlocks the History of Monkey Cinema

Liem Soeng

‘Going Ape!’ Is the Midnight Movie Skeleton Key That Unlocks the History of Monkey Cinema

On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age. 

First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing. 

Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.

The Pitch: That’s $1522 Per Ape, Per Day!

Two weeks ago, when I found myself watching “Eye of the Cat” for this very column, I realized that it was a remnant of a niche subgenre that has been dormant for far too long: films about humans and animals competing for large inheritances. Despite the fact that pets have absolutely no use for human currency, it used to be perfectly acceptable to open a film with a will reading, only for a human protagonist to discover that his rich relative left their vast fortune to their cats or dogs. Comedy inevitably ensued.

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But while those films have fallen out of vogue, I was instantly reminded of my favorite entry in the genre, and decided that it deserved a moment in the IndieWire After Dark spotlight as part of a double feature with “Eye of the Cat.” I’m speaking, of course, of “Going Ape!” (And yes, the exclamation mark is both a signal of my enthusiasm and part of the film’s official title.)

“Going Ape!” takes the pet inheritance premise and combines it with the time honored “men struggling to take care of kids” comedy genre. The 1981 film stars Tony Danza as the son of a wealthy circus performer (an oxymoron if there ever was one) who inherits $5 million from his late father on the condition that he keep the late patriarch’s three prized apes alive for five years. It’s a strange request, as one might think that anyone who valued their circus apes that much would be thinking beyond the next half-decade of their wellbeing. But since Tony can’t ask his dead father about his questionable logic, he begins the chaotic task of caring for the unruly primates with the help of their longtime wrangler Lazlo (Danny DeVito doing an appropriately incomprehensible accent).

Beyond its artistic merits (or lack thereof), the historical importance of “Going Ape!” to those of us who value monkey movies cannot be overstated. It’s the first (and only) directorial effort from Jeremy Joe Kronsberg, best known as the genius who turned the concept of Clint Eastwood hanging out with a monkey into box office gold as the screenwriter of “Every Which Way But Loose.” While he’s not credited as a writer on its far superior sequel “Any Which Way You Can,” he still deserves a large portion of the credit for all of the subsequent orangutan antics for creating the characters. If Clint Eastwood’s reps ever respond to my requests to write a third “Which Way” film that stars a 93-year-old Clint Eastwood as a dying Philo Beddoe who re-enters the world of bare knuckle boxing to mentor Clyde’s son, it will be a result of the machine that Kronsberg set in motion. The trivia section of his IMDB page bestows him with what I believe is the greatest honor an artist working in cinema could ever hope to achieve by describing him as “the godfather of the modern ape chase movie.” High praise indeed.

The ape chase movie phenomenon of the ’70s and early ’80s was a flame that simply burned too brightly to be sustainable, as Kronsberg was never officially credited on another movie after writing and directing “Going Ape!” I sometimes think about what must have been going through his mind in 1981 while working on this film. After the massive success of “Every Which Way But Loose” and “Every Which Way You Can,” it must have felt like pairing established actors with chimpanzees was a comedic formula with entertainment value would never fade. He probably thought that in the 2020s he’d be a billionaire overseeing movies about Tom Holland and Zendaya trying to retrieve their NFTs from mischievous apes who stole them. And it’s hard to argue that we wouldn’t all be better off living in that world.

“Going Ape!” might have all the cinematic gravitas of a CBS pilot that wasn’t picked up for the 1979 season, but it represents something much bigger: our unalienable right to watch monkeys engage in semi-human activities in big budget comedies. If we ever want those halcyon days where chimpanzees ruled Hollywood to return, we should all take a moment to appreciate it. —CZ

GOING APE!, Tony Danza, & an orangutan, 1981. ©Paramount Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
“Going Ape!” ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

The Aftermath: No Humans Were Harmed During the Making of This Film, Your Honor

After four reasonably successful years playing witness to fake crimes on the collegiate mock trial circuit, I was recruited to help write a case problem with other alumni in 2018. Argued by undergraduate “lawyers” from across the country, Midlands Television Studios v. Danny Kosack was not particularly well received by the broader community of the American Mock Trial Association; its fact pattern was “erratic” they said, the sides “wildly imbalanced” they claimed!

Generally speaking, I stand by our civil case committee’s work as a pre-“Nope” stroke of genius. For the competition, the alleged negligence of a television network — and counterclaimed negligence case against a foolhardy animal trainer — saw both sides go to trial following a deadly animal variety act gone wrong. Who was to blame for the bludgeoning of poor, sweet, chimpanzee-provoking late night writer Chris? And likewise, who was to blame for the euthanizing of poor, sweet, face-mauling Elias? I can’t remember the case’s final statistics, but you win some, you lose some.

Comparing “Going Ape!” to “Eye of the Cat” makes sense, not only because of the aforementioned animal inheritance trend but also because of the bizarre choices each midnight movie makes in presenting their respective animal stars. As Zilko pointed out with the column a few weeks back, filmmaker David Lowell Rich tries to make common housecats seem scary in “Eye of the Cat” when to must viewers they just aren’t. And although I’ll give Kronsberg credit for giving Rusty, Tiga, and Poppy remarkably distinct personalities (what a bitch that Tiga is, huh?), I couldn’t help but find the trio of not-so-lovable stars unspeakably off-putting.

I know how bad chimpanzee attacks can be; I tried to make an autopsy for one. (Not well, but I did!) And if orangutans are anything like their primate peers, then there is no doubt in my mind that the realistic version of “Going Ape!” would be a thing of bone-shattering nightmares. Even as it’s presented, the slapstick comedy throws realism and basic physics out the literal window. Those guys would have died plunging ankle-first into that decorative pond, and I’ve got serious concerns about the wellbeing of the gurney-spinning, “I’M FINALLY HAVING MY PARTY!” woman. (A slay, though!)

What’s more, there’s a hint of sexualization to the California Zoological Society’s Three Most Wanted that’s giving… foot fetish? To quote friend of the column, Sar, “I didn’t need to see the ape’s foot on the gas pedal. I didn’t need to see its toes… grip it.” Toss in two sexy nuns, and you’ve got an awkwardly titillating treasure that’s perfectly in keeping with reigning IndieWire After Dark favorite “Any Which Way You Can” — AKA “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” for bare-knuckle boxing apes.

Tony Danza comes out remarkably well in all this, giving off a boyish charm that makes all that nonconsensual intraspecies smooching surprisingly cute. But the late Jessica Walter is the real treat, of course (there’s always money in the banana stand, Lucille!), and her last-act kiss with an extra gremlin-y Danny DeVito (did he really eat that raw egg?) is a thing of surprising batshit-for-batshit beauty. As baffling a showing for its human actors as its ape ones, “Going Ape!” is indeed a masterful piece of niche genre canon…. and boasts the cutest near vertical vivisection of a baby orangutan in cinematic history, case closed. —AF

Those brave enough to join in on the fun can stream “Going Ape!” on all major VOD platforms.  IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…

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