Apes get a bad rap in the press, but let’s face it: they’re incredibly cool. They can toss you around like a basketball, they peel bananas with their toes, and yet for all of that, they’re by and large placid vegetarians. (We’re the savage ones, as the Planet of the Apes franchise so often reminds us.) With the surprisingly awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes hitting theaters on Friday, we thought we’d take a look at the 10 coolest apes from pop culture past. We’ve expanded the list slightly to include monkeys as well as apes; they’re pretty cool too.
(Editor’s Note: One suspicious absence from this list is The Librarian from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. We apologize for the oversight and will send a platter of fresh fruit directly to Unseen University in supplication.)
This DC Comics staple has been around since the earliest days of the comics (he first appeared way back in Action Comics #13), and has undergone a number of radical changes. The best has his mighty brain placed in the body of an albino gorilla, earning him a spot on this list. His various schemes have challenged the DC heroes in the usual way, but our favorite stems from the Justice League animated series. Tied up by a passel of bad guys, Batman escapes by throwing money at the big lug… which he promptly donates to public television.
Mystery Science Theater hit a roll in its final three seasons by expanding the cast of evil mad scientists: including Bobo, son of Koko and heir to the lineage of Godo, Mogo and Chim-Chim. The overt Planet of the Apes dig made for comedy gold, as the supposedly intelligent professor often reverted to poo-flinging primitivism and terrifying discussions of his bodily functions. He acted as a henchman for the evil Pearl Forrester, though he usually harmed her efforts more than helped them through sheer inept boobery.
If you follow the logic of 2001, then this hairy guy is the father of all humanity. Never mind that he’s a savage, instinct-driven proto-carnivore concerned mostly with possession of the local watering hole and beating his rivals to a pulp. He makes the list thanks to his discovery of the first tool, a sequence that ranks as one of the greatest in all of cinema.
If the Ultra-Humanite is the warm-up act, then Grodd is the main event: a super-smart ape with telepathic powers and a knack for scientific gadgetry. He also despises humans, a trait that puts him within shouting distance of Planet of the Apes and at loggerheads with most of DCs heroes. Gen Xers remember him most fondly for his appearance in the old SuperFriends cartoon, but once again, Justice League gives him his truest reward: plotting to seize control of the Legion of Doom from Lex Luthor.
“We named the monkey Jack,” Captain Barbossa explains conversationally in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. His pet capuchin serves as an implacable irritant to the real Jack Sparrow, primarily because he’s undead and thus unkillable. “Jack” ends On Stranger Tides shrunk down and stuck in a bottle along with the Black Pearl, but Sparrow’s world-weary “I hate that monkey” means that his antics may never cease. One other notable fact: besides Sparrow, Barbossa and Joshamee Gibbs, he’s the only Pirates character to appear in all four movies.
Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake has a lot of problems. Tim Roth is not one of them. His militaristic chimpanzee scares the crap out of you just by glaring in your direction, and thanks to a truly amazing performance, we actually believe that he’s a chimpanzee at points. Roth turned down the role of Professor Snape because of his commitments here, and while it probably wasn’t the wisest career move, you can’t accuse him of slacking off as a result.
“No movie that features a monkey giving the Nazi salute can be all bad,” actor Paul Freeman quipped, and indeed this seig heiling little turncoat may be one of Indiana Jones’s most memorable foes. After endearing herself to Marion through her wacky antics, she promptly rats the girl out to the bad guys, cries crocodile tears with Indy over his booze, and leads her evil master right to his location while he’s having the Staff of Ra headpiece translated. She receives due comeuppance after ingesting poisoned dates – inadvertently warning Sallah of the threat – but no other villain got closer to Dr. Jones to more devastating effect.
George is a brown monkey of indeterminate species, taken from his jungle home by the Man with the Yellow Hat and brought to the cig city. This apparent act of eco-terrorism is avenged by George’s endless wacky escapades that create all manner of chaos. The monkey’s sweet personality and innate innocence are intended to echo the youthful readers of the original books: something the recent animated film adroitly captured in the midst of more cynical Hollywood stereotypes.
We’re using the good Doctor as a representative for the whole gang in the original Planet of the Apes; Roddy Macdowell’s Cornelius and Kim Hunter’s Zira could easily occupy spaces on this list as well. But Zaius gets the nod for most succinctly evoking the film’s central message: that we humans are far more savage than we pretend. His villainy is tinged with uncomfortable truths, even as he wickedly sends up religious fanaticism and other foolishness of our own era. Plus he’s an orangutan, and how cool is that?
There’s cool apes and there’s lame apes, but there’s only one King. Kong embodies a number of notions that other apes here possess – including an innate threat to humanity and a mirror of our own monstrousness – while also adding tones of a tragic romantic to the equation. Bottom line, however, is that he just kicks ass. Ask any dinosaur he’s tangled with... and remember to wipe that tear from your eye when he finally succumbs to civilization’s horrors.