In the course of cinema’s history, there have been many films that change the way we perceive our own humanity. Films like “Citizen Kane,” “The Godfather” and “Schindler’s List” show how the choices we make as human beings define our identity. These are essential films that we as people deserve to examine and appreciate on a higher level. In 2004, a film was released direct-to-DVD that should be included in this array of cinema – the best of the best. However, the superficiality of pretentious cinephiles that often – to use a cliché – “judge a book by its cover” would believe in a heartbeat that a film like “Funky Monkey” is immediately passable; an unnecessary viewing. Those people are wrong.
Alright, that’s a huge overstatement – the film is exceptionally inept in many ways. However, it has some sort of a grasp on this film critic that has resulted in viewing the film so many times that an accurate count is impossible. Based on a whim, the first viewing of the movie was like watching a Chaplin film for the first time. It’s entirely unbelievable, but “Funky Monkey” might be one of the best comedic cinematic experiences since “Modern Times.”
The plot revolves around a chimpanzee named Clemens who is specially trained by former C.I.A. Agent Alec McCall (an incredible Matthew Modine) for the evil corporation Zoology International Technology (Z.I.T.) run by the villainous Flick (Taylor Negron). After a test presentation of Clemens’ abilities, McCall learns of Flick’s plans to experiment on the chimp. Acting fast, he breaks Clemens out of his cell and they make their escape to San Diego. McCall attempts to hide his primate fugitive at his friend Harlan’s (Tommy Davidson) zoo, but Clemens goes bananas when the bumbling zoo handlers try to cage him. Luckily, Clemens and McCall meet young Michael Dean (Seth Adkins) whose mother Megan (Roma Downey) happens to be renting a garage apartment. McCall gets the apartment after a heroic skateboard stunt (because that’s how realty works these days), but must keep Clemens a secret.
Meanwhile, Flick has woefully enlisted the help of two incompetent security guards Drummond (Bodhi Elfman) and Peters (Pat Finn) to capture both the chimp and Flick’s laptop (which McCall had Clemens snatch during their motorcycle escape from Z.I.T.).
The film has a bevy of action sequences which are so pathetically done that they can only come off as absolutely hilarious. There is one particular scene in which young Michael finds the gumption to ask out the girl of his dreams to the Halloween party. She accepts and in his excitement, Michael punts a football which lands into the open helmet of a motorcycle gang’s leader. The driver crashes, but is of course well enough to threaten our young hero. Luckily, McCall is there to save the day and beats up the entire gang with the use of ice cream cones (McCall shoves one down the leader’s mouth and gloats, “It’s butter pecan!”) and then he and Clemens finish them off utilizing a nearby playground, Jackie Chan style. The scene is amateurishly cut (the gang rides up in a perfect “flying v,” and the next shot shows several tracks in the grass indicating it took many different takes to shoot the scene) but it’s this poor style in addition to Modine’s bizarre performance that makes the film so endearingly watchable.
Modine could have easily phoned it in, but there appears to be an appreciation for how bad the film is in his performance. His portrayal of animal trainer/football star McCall is strikingly bizarre if not unconditionally ingenious. He must have been the only one in on his own joke. In an interview in 2009 with Buzzine, Modine said of the film, “The story was just so retarded, so crazy that I thought this could be a really fun children’s movie.” In the interview, he continues saying that the film was an absolute disaster. They filmed most of it in France and then had to re-shoot almost all of the film in San Diego (which hopefully means there’s a whole other “Funky Monkey,” actually titled “Hairy Tale” sitting on someone’s computer and will one day be re-edited for release).
However, Modine seems to be the only one in on the joke. The rest of the players are just awful, but still endearingly so. Downey throws on her awkward American accent and has such horrific plastic surgery that her role as McCall’s love interest is laughable. Adkins’ Michael Dean is supposed to be a child genius but just comes off as an awkward wannabe nerd. He too quickly gains the attention of the cutest girl in school who should just be ignoring him. The film does offer big names like Jeffrey Tambor as football coach J.T. Whooping Crane and Gilbert Godfried as the evil Doctor Spleen but their cameos are mostly forgettable, with the exception of a well-placed honking sound effect during Godfried’s last scene (a monkey bops him on the nose and the sweet sound of a bicycle horn is the effect – pure comedy, right?). Other stars like Jason Flemyng (“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and more recently “Clash of the Titans”) and character actor Fred Ward are credited as being in the film, but never make an appearance proving that there is definitely another movie out there just waiting to see the light of day.
The reason the film is so accessible and forgivable for its many, many flaws is its total lack of pretension. This is the case of a film that tried really hard to be a funny family film, but its director Harry Basil (who was originally supposed to only be the producer until they supposedly fired the first director Gene Quintano) just didn’t know how to make a movie. Usually this kind of filmmaking is unbearable to watch (think the Friedberg/Seltzer parody movies), but in the case of “Funky Monkey,” it’s appeal is that there seemed to be a lot of love that went into a film that was doomed from the start. It’s the family equivalent to Tommy Wiseau’s new cult classic “The Room.”
If you’re perusing the cheap bin at Wal-mart (which you know you do) and find this hidden gem, don’t judge the DVD by its cover and pick up “Funky Monkey” which is also available to watch any time as an instant watch on Netflix. As Michael Dean would say, you’ll “climb immeasurable on my coolness chart.”