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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Space Chimps

I’m not going to monkey around here. I’m gibbon you the straight facts right now: you’ll go absolutely ape if you go see Space Chimps! I know, I know, you probably think it is some moronic kids’ movie with a plot about as dim as Ralph Nader’s chances of being President and animation on a par with a Kindergarten level Reader Rabbit's ‘Let’s Learn the Alphabet’ Slide Show. Au contraire, mes amis. This one’s a winner!

Space Chimps is anything but a cheesy made-off-the-cuff movie. It’s clever, classy, and beautifully crafted. These chimps seem to be alive, and I know something about how hard it is to make a monkey of yourself on-screen. Back in the Dark Ages, before the 1980s, I got my Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card playing a chimpanzee in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in one of the worst sequels ever made, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I’ll not say much about the sewage that was CotPotA, but I will always fondly remember the two weeks of “Ape School” we went to before production began “to get inside the mind of (our) character(s).” We learned to walk like chimps, swing our arms the way they do, tip our heads a certain way, scratch, eat, and even sleep as our tree-swinging cousins do, and we also learned to distinguish these same characteristics and the differences between our own idiosyncrasies and those of our “competing” species of apes, the Gorillas and the Orangutans. I didn’t care squat about them though. My heart belonged to the chimpanzees, and even though the movie wasn’t anything to brag about, I’ve always held them in the highest esteem since I was one of them, at least for about six weeks one summer. Believe me. I can spot someone who is just clowning around with chimps for the sake of cheap laughs and someone who really appreciates them for more than just sheer silliness. Space Chimps is as much a valentine to these hairy primates as it is an adventure story for the entire family.

This sweet story begins with exactly what I was talking about ~ one of those ‘someones’ who is
clowning around with chimps for the sake of sheer foolishness and mayhem. In this case, he is putting one in a cannon and shooting him up into the air as part of a traveling circus. This chimp is the grandson of America’s first simian space traveler, which is the drawing card the circus uses to publicize his act, but even though they both share the same name, this hairy acrobat is anything but a hero like Grandpa. Still, Ham III (voiced by Andy Samberg of tv’s “Saturday Night Live”) is comfortable with his life as a circus performer, so he is reluctant at first when he is “recruited” into service by NASA to join two astronaut-trained chimps on a space mission.

What Ham doesn’t know is that a $5 billion explorer satellite in search of alien life was sucked into a wormhole and NASA’s plan is to send the chimps in search of the missing hardware simply because it would be too risky to send humans. The four scientists working on this project (Omid Abtahi, The Last Lullaby; Patrick Breen, The Neighbor; Jane Lynch, Tru Loved; Kath Soucie, tv’s “The Replacements”) aren’t without concern about their astronauts. It’s just that the Senator (Stanley Tucci; Kit Kittredge: An American Girl) overseeing this project is such a pain. He is breathing down their necks and threatening to turn the whole space agency into a ceramics store if this mission fails, and, apparently he has the clout to do it. You know, watching this guy be such an overbearing bully made me think for sure he had to be a die-hard Republican; then when I saw how totally gullible he was I was absolutely certain he was a Democrat. Now the only thing I know without a doubt is that he is a complete idiot, which makes him all the more laughable, and all the bigger target to fall by the end of the picture ~ the giant chump for the chimps to trump.
Heading up the mission in space is the credit-grabbing egotist, Commander Titan (Patrick Warburton; Get Smart), a nice enough guy except for the fact that he has a short fuse when it comes to slacker Ham. Of course Ham is completely over the moon with the other crew member, the brainy and fearless Lt. Luna (Cheryl Hines; Bart Got A Room), the prettiest cinematic chimpanzee this side of The Planet of the Apes’ Zira (Kim Hunter; Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Space Chimps is full of surprises, and not just of the alien nature. Yes, our astro-apes do find some amazing life on another planet and end up doing battle with an evil despot (isn’t that always the way of science fiction movies), but they also meet some peaceful life-forms and even one courageous and selfless alien in particular (voiced by the adorable Kristin Chenoweth; tv’s “Pushing Daisies") who does something so brave and loving I dare you not to feel at least a little lump in your throat by the turn of events involving her character, Kilowatt.

Oh, but don’t worry. This is rated G. What seems a scary moment is not always what it actually is. As a matter of fact, it leads to probably the biggest laugh in the movie when the resolution to how the “tragedy” was averted is finally revealed. This is only one of many laughs in Space Chimps though. For a “kids’ movie” Space Chimps is chock full of adult humor, and by that I don’t mean risqué. I simply mean on a level that kids won’t get or care about but adults will think is funny. What eight year is going to understand references about taxidermy or Bill Gates, for example? And just how many Disney princesses sit around analyzing the differences between the super-ego and the id (even though they probably need to more than most)? Luna may be monkeying around with Ham, but she takes the time to give him a little Freudian analysis in the midst of everything else that is going on.

I also think a few of the executives at 20th Century Fox could use some of this psychotherapy to figure out what they were thinking in releasing this little gem of a film on the same weekend as The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia!, thus guaranteeing that Space Chimps would be lost in the tsunami of big budget/big name hysteria attached to these enormous summer blockbusters. All I can imagine is that the folks at 20th Century, Universal (on behalf of The Dark Knight), and Playtone (for Mamma Mia!) got together and played “rock, paper, scissors” for prim(at)e spots on the calendar and the guys from Universal and Playtone cheated and shot the representative from 20th Century. When nobody heard back from their delegate representing that studio, The Powers That Be just went ahead and scheduled Space Chimps to open last weekend without looking at what would be rolling out against it. Okay, I know that’s a diaper-full, but I have to delude myself somehow because there really is no excuse for abandoning such a sweet little movie without any care.

Please! Don’t be a complete baboon. Check out
Space Chimps for yourself and I'll bet you go bananas!. I swear, if Ronald Reagan was alive today, he’d put Bonzo to bed, hire a babysitter for Nancy, and be first in line to check out these chimps with an admiring eye. Maybe he was anyway. Queue the spooky music on that thought.

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