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Famous Primates in Film: A Brief History

Later this month, the mighty Kong returns to the big screen! To celebrate, we’re looking back at all the major primate appearances in film.

For as long as films were being made, humans have starred alongside primates. Unlike other animals, their human-like qualities can lend a sense of comedy or horror. Throughout the history of film, primates have been used to fulfill certain roles. In the early days, they were often a form of antagonist, carrying out dastardly deeds or causing mayhem. More common is the primate cast in a role of mischief, causing all sorts of comedic hijincks. While most primate roles were portrayed by live animals, it was not uncommon for men to dress up in ape suits for roles where the primates needed to carry out specific actions. Later, the advent of CGI has led to men mimicking primates in real time to create a motion-capture performance. Below is a chronological timeline of all of the major milestones of primates in film. It is by no means complete, but should include most of the important and best-loved monkey movie characters.


 1908 - Gorilla in Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery - One of the first film appearances of Sherlock Holmes finds the detective proving that the crimes of an accused man were actually committed by a Gorilla that had escaped its cage.

1918 - Kala in Tarzan of the Apes - The first Tarzan film adaptation is based on Burrough’s original novel Tarzan of the Apes. Kala is the ape who finds young Tarzan and raises him as her own.

1928 - The organ player’s monkey in The Cameraman - Buster Keaton’s first film with MGM found the legendary comedian sharing in his haphazard adventures with a monkey who he accidentally cameramanknocks out.  

1932 - Erik in Murders in the Rue Morgue - Dr. Mirakle (played by Bela Lugosi) uses his ape Erik to demonstrate evolution at a carnival. Later he mixes human and ape blood in his lab to disastrous results.

1932 - Cheeta in Tarzan the Ape Man - Cheeta is Tarzan’s loyal companion and comes to Jane’s rescue when she gets kidnapped. Tarzan the Ape Man was the first “talkie” Tarzan film, and the first in a series of 12 Tarzan films to star Olympic gold-medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan.

1933 - King Kong - The king of all movie primates is first seen here as a monstrous creature found on a mysterious island by a risk-taking filmmaker. When he is brought back to civilization to be shown off, he escapes, leading to one of the most famous special effects shots in all of film.

Img kingkong11933 - Son of Kong - Kong has a possible son, an albino gorilla who isn’t as big and is helpful instead of angry.

1933 - Wasei Kingu Kongu - A silent film that used the story of King Kong as a setting. A man dresses up like King Kong and puts on a show. While technically not featuring a primate, this film was the beginning of the Japanese infatuation with King Kong.

1938 - King Kong Appears in Edo - Another Japanese film referencing King Kong. This time it’s an actual gorilla named King Kong who is used by a criminal to conduct a kidnapping.   

1939 - Flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz - Constant nuisance to Dorothy and her companions, made even more menacing by the permanent smiles etched onto their faces.

1949 - Joe in Mighty Joe Young - Joe is a large gorilla raised from birth by a woman who is forced to take him to Hollywood to try and make money. An RKO Picture (the same company that made King Kong), it is notable as being the first film of stop-motion special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen.  6a014e8b29c8c3970d01675f27b518970b 600wi

1951 - Bonzo in Bedtime for Bonzo - A comedy film starring Ronald Reagan as a scientist who tried to teach human morals to a chimp named Bonzo. This was one of Reagan’s most iconic big screen roles, although one that he would never live down.

1952 - Esther in Monkey Business - Dr. Fulton is an absent-minded chemist who is trying to invent the elixir of youth. Esther is one of his chimps, who playfully dumps chemicals into the water cooler, and the unsuspecting humans who drink from it become younger.

1961 - Konga - As with most early monkey-related films, there’s a mad scientist. This time it’s Dr. Decker who returns from Africa having discovered a way to make living things larger. He uses this technique on a chimp, turning him into a giant gorilla (?) and sending him to London to kill all his enemies who wanted to disprove his studies.  

1962 - King Kong vs. Godzilla - The third Godzilla film pits the green monster against the world’s most famous giant gorilla. Although Godzilla is successful at warding off the angry primate, he would return in another Godzilla film.

1964 - Mona in Robinson Crusoe on Mars - Mona is a monkey onboard a Mars-bound spaceship that crashes on the red planet. She is responsible for helping the surviving astronauts.

KingLouie1967 - King Louie in Disney’s The Jungle Book - Disney’s animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s novel added a new character to the mix, King Louie, an orangutan king who uses his power and influence to keep Mowgli safe in exchange for fire.

1967 - Mechani-Kong in King Kong Escapes - Another Japanese film featuring Kong, this one starts with a mad scientist (don’t they all?) at the North Pole who invents Mechani-Kong, a robot version of King Kong to help him find a rare element. When that robot breaks down, he decides to use the real King Kong. I bet you can predict what will happen.

1968 - Cornelius in Planet of the Apes - Roddy McDowell plays one of the most famous ape characters in all of film as Cornelius, the inquisitive monkey who becomes interested in George Taylor, the talking human (Charlton Heston), because he just might be the proof he is looking for to prove his theory of evolution.

1968 - Man-apes featured in the first act of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey depict the dawn of humanity when they find the first black monolith.

1971 - Zira in Escape from the Planet of the Apes - The third entry into the original Planet of the 14593249Apes franchise switches the premise around. This time, the Apes travel to modern day Earth, starting the series of events that would later allow them to replace humans as the dominant species. Zira is Cornelius’ wife, and perhaps the smartest ape.

1976 - King Kong - In this remake, the titular character is found in modern times by an expedition from an oil company. When they learn that the oil they seek is unreachable, they settle on Kong himself as a promotional gimmick, and return him to New York City. Here he escapes, climbing the World Trade center instead of the Empire State Building.

1976 - Queen Kong - A spoof that coincidentally was set to release the same year as the new King Kong. However, the filmmakers of King Kong took legal action and the Queen was never wide-released in theaters.

1977 - Prince Kassim in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger - Kassim is actually a human prince who was transformed into a baboon by a witch. He becomes sidekick to Sinbad, and eventually regains his natural form.

Screen Shot 2012 06 20 at 8.29.33 PM1978 - Clyde in Every Which Way But Loose - Clint Eastwood plays a truck driver named Philo who also makes money in bare-fisted fights in this romantic adventure-comedy. However, the star of the film is Philo’s pet orangutan named Clyde.

1981 - Sydney in The Incredible Shrinking Woman - Sydney is a super-intelligent gorilla who helps save Pat (Lily Tomlin) from a group of evil scientists who had kidnapped her to learn her secret. Sydney is played by special effects wiz Richard Baker, who won an Academy Award this same year for his work on American Warewolf in London.

1984 - Kala in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes - The first big-budget adaptation of the story of Tarzan, and the most successful version since the final Weissmueller films of the late 60’s. Kala returns as the ape who raises baby Tarzan as her own offspring.

1986 - King Kong Lives - Thanks to a nifty heart transplant, King Kong is back in action, but he’s not alone. This time he has a female companion, and those pesky humans keep getting in the way of their happy ever after.  

1987 - Virgil in Project X- Project X is a secret air force research program that uses chimps for flight-test simulations. Virgil had been taught sign-language, and when one of his captors (played by Matthew Broderick) learns of his abilities, he helps the chimps to escape.  

1988 - Gorillas in the Mist - The true story of Dian Fossey (played by Sigourney Weaver), who worked in Africa with Mountain Gorillas.

1988 - Ella in Monkey Shines - A scientist experiments with injecting human brain tissue into monkeys. Ella is one of his first subjects that learns to speak. Ella is given to a quadriplegic man, but ends up channeling his frustrations and anger to disastrous results.

1990 - Shakma - Shakma is a baboon who is experimented on with a drug that is supposed to make the animal less aggressive. It has the opposite effect, and instead of euthanizing the animal, the clipabu212scientist only sedates him out of pity...

1992 - Abu in Aladdin - Aladdin's sidekick is cute and full of attitude - but his eye for shiny objects makes him a skilled thief too.

1994 - Rafiki in The Lion King - A wizened mandrill, Rafiki serves as advisor to the lion king as well as a healer and medicine man, not to mention narrator of this animated adventure.

1995 - Betsy in Outbreak - Betsy seems like a harmless capuchin monkey, but later turns out to be the cause of the deadly Motaba virus in a remote village.

1995 - Amy in Congo - Amy is a gorilla who can speak to humans with help from a sign-language interpreting device. She helps to convince an expedition to go to Africa where an aggressive species of gorillas keep the secrets and wealth of a forgotten civilization protected.

1996 - Ed - Ed is a chimp who starts off as the mascot for a baseball team but later becomes a formidable pitcher.

Dunston Checks In1996 - Dunston in Dunston Checks In - Dunston is an orangutan who was brought to a hotel by a thief to steal jewelry from guests. He escapes his captor though, and befriends a boy who tries to keep him safe. 

1997 - George of the Jungle - He’s not Tarzan, but he is raised by apes in the jungle.

1998 - Joe in Mighty Joe Young - The remake of the 1949 film has its titular character imagined much “mightier” thanks to a combination of CGI, miniature sets, and animatronics. One of the first films to have sequences where a major character is completely digital.

1998 - Babe: Pig in the City - There are several monkey characters in the sequel to Babe, which built on the Oscar-winning special effects of the 1995 original film.

1999 - Disney’s Tarzan - The Lord of the Apes returns in Disney’s animated version.

2001 Ari in Planet of the Apes - Burton's Planet of the Apes remake finds the characters of Cornellius and Zira replaced by Ari, a chimp who protests the way that humans are treated. The film's production actually began in the 80's when another sequel to the original franchise was considered. 

2002 - The rage virus monkeys from 28 Days Later - When a group of lab-test monkeys are freed by animal activists, they unfortunately spread a killer virus that turns humanity into zombies.

2005 - King Kong - The second remake, this one by Peter Jackson, treads similar territory as the 1933 film, but with updated CGI special effects instead of stop-motion animation.

2006 - Curious George - Everyone’s favorite mischievous and inquisitive monkey got a big screen animated adaptation.

2008 - Master Monkey in Kung Fu Panda - Voiced by Jackie Chan, Master Monkey is a member of the Furious Five who fought alongside the Dragon Warrior, Po, to defeat Tai Lung.

Andy Serkis as Caesar for database page

2011 - Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes - The first in a new series of Planet of the Apes films explains the beginning of the ape revolution starting with Caesar, a genetically engineered chimp. Caesar was brought to life by Andy Serkis in a stunning example of CGI motion capture.

2014 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - The sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows Caesar’s story, but also adds an entire civilization of apes living under his command in a future post-apocalyptic San Francisco.

2016 - Akut from The Legend of Tarzan - The famous character returned to the screen once again. This time, Tarzan is older when he returns to the jungle his place as leader of the gorillas has been usurped by his “brother”, Akut.

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