It is surprisingly difficult to find a definitive list of Disney Chimp Films, not helped by the relatively recent release of a nature film just called Chimpanzee, from their True-Life Adventures But Not Called That series of recent years. Wikipedia has a page called “List of fictional primates in film,” but it is quite obviously incomplete and only mentions on Disney chimp, and we’ve discussed more movies than that without actually finished the list of Disney Chimp Films. If my count is correct, we have one still to go, and I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’ve missed one or two. I haven’t even considered Disney Chimp Television, because that feels exhausting to research.
The first of these films was Toby Tyler or 10 Weeks With a Circus. Mr. Stubbs the Chimpanzee is a character in the book, not that I’ve read the book (future Camera Obscura entry?), so Disney didn’t choose to have him as a character. Then came Moon Pilot, the one I haven’t seen, much less written about here. (Or if I saw it, it was back in my early childhood Disney Channel days.) The two Merlin Jones movies followed; whereas Mr. Stubbs had been a circus animal and the chimp who appears on the Moon Pilot poster is in a space helmet, Stanley starts as a lab chimp at Midvale College. Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N., features a lost space chimp. Monkeys, Go Home has four failed space chimps. Finally, The Barefoot Executive never, as I recall, actually mentions where its chimp came from before his previous owner started keeping him as a pet.
The space chimp connection is doubtless important. They’re mostly forgotten now, I think, but two chimps from the US actually flew into space. Ham flew a suborbital flight lasting slightly over fifteen minutes in 1961, a year and ten days after the release of Toby Tyler. Enos flew two orbits later that year, the only chimpanzee to orbit the Earth. There have been assorted other primates, mostly monkeys, to fly in space before and after, but for obvious reasons it’s the chimps who captured the human imagination most. All but one of the movies came out after the flights of Ham and Enos, and as I said, the one chimp who didn’t is from source material.
However, it’s strange that the phenomenon lasted so long. In the ‘50s, The Today Show had featured a cohost named J. Fred Muggs (apparently still alive!), a chimp who seems to have been smart enough to work out that he couldn’t be disciplined when the show was on the air and therefore did whatever he wanted to in those times. It’s also true that the comic book companies learned that putting gorillas on the cover sold more comics, and they actually had to limit how many times the covers featured them. I don’t know how long that lasted, but there’s long been a fixation on great apes in general and chimps in particular in US pop culture.
What I’ve been unable to uncover, though, is what happened to the space chimps after the program ended. Dozens of chimps were considered for the program. In the episode of Quantum Leap where Sam leaps into one of them, the chimps are said to be rerouted to other programs, which wouldn’t surprise me, and there’s talk about establishing a sanctuary for former research chimps. The plot of The Barefoot Executive notwithstanding, you can’t just release chimps who have gotten used to humans back into the wild. (Especially not into the Amazon, one of many problems with that movie.) I suppose it’s just barely possible that some of them ended up in Hollywood instead.
I suppose part of the issue is that chimps are like humans but not. They’re our closest biological relatives. It’s fun watching them act like humans despite not being human, I guess. That’s probably why they wear clothing so often. In a couple of the movies, they’re explicitly doing humans’ work that isn’t test work where they’re intended to eventually be replaced by humans, the point of the space chimp. They are picking up olives or programming television. It’s funny!
The most surprising absence of chimp is in Swiss Family Robinson. It’s true that chimps are native to Africa and are unlikely to be on an island between Switzerland and New Guinea, but no one who’s seen Swiss Family Robinson can take that complaint seriously. It was filmed on Tobago. Animals featured in the movie include an ostrich, a zebra, an (Asiatic) elephant, a giant tortoise, an anaconda, and a tiger. There are monkeys, though I can’t remember if they have prehensile tails or not, meaning I can’t remember if they’re Old World or New World. Either way, that’s animals from three continents. The father suggests that the island used to be part of a land bridge between Africa and Asia, but that doesn’t make any sense, either.
Further, there’s the movie variously known as Unidentified Flying Oddball, The Spaceman and King Arthur, and A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court. Astronaut, yes, but no chimp. He’s got a stand-in android instead because why not; as I recall, the movie postulates that, in the long term, humans will send androids to do their dangerous space travel rather than risk themselves. Presumably chimps would then be seen as a step backward, so there’s no place in the story for one. That means it actually makes more sense to be chimp-free than it does for Swiss Family Robinson. And The World’s Greatest Athlete gives its hero a pet tiger, of all things.
So what is with the chimps? That is, in the end, a fine question that I can’t answer. Not in any way more complicated that “people like chimps.” Seven movies in about ten years isn’t really that many, and one of them is a sequel to another, but it’s slightly over twelve percent and slightly under one-eighth. That’s a large percentage—especially given that the percentage would be even higher if you eliminated the True-Life Adventure and the animated movies. (The last feature-length True-Life Adventure came out the same year as Toby Tyler.) The movies include some of the last that Walt was personally involved with, only The Barefoot Executive falling outside that list. They’re not all good movies, but they’re definitely not all terrible. While the Merlin Jones ones aren’t terribly popular today, they were enough for Walt to briefly walk back firing Tommy Kirk for a sequel, wherein Merlin attempts to adopt a chimp.
I don’t know. People like chimps. They were high in the public consciousness in the ‘60s because of the space program and J. Fred Muggs. Beyond that, I genuinely can’t explain the whole thing. While researching this has provided me with a wealth of information that doesn’t really fit with the scope of this article, it was surprisingly difficult to find some of the information that was. That’s the way of things sometimes.