February 16, 2011 by abbyo
The more I examine the 90s, my growing-up years, the more I feel like this decade had an awful lot of children’s films, more so than decades before or since. Sure, there are plenty of family-friendly movies around now, but a lot of them go straight to video. You don’t see very many hit the big screen. Maybe it was because I was a child at the time, but it seemed like there was never a shortage of stuff I wanted to see at the theater. This was the decade that saw some of Disney’s best animated features, the advent of Pixar, and releases of modern-day kid’s classics like “The Sandlot,” “Matilda” and “The Secret Garden.” Even adult movies like “Men in Black” felt made to be enjoyed by younger audiences.
Of course, that’s not to say that every movie that came out in this decade was good. There were plenty of duds. And I wasn’t the most discerning viewer, being in elementary school. I watched (and liked) a lot of bad movies. Take, for example, this week’s entry, “Monkey Trouble,” part of a 90s cinema trend that I’m sure lots of people would like you to forget—pairing plucky children with mischievous monkeys. From what I can tell, it was the first, with “Born to be Wild,” “Dunston Checks In” and “Summer of the Monkeys” following in rapid succession. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone thought this would be a good concept to exploit—the movie’s pretty boring, and dumber than a bunch of bananas.
Here’s the setup: A gypsy grifter working the boardwalk in L.A. (Harvey Keitel—yes, you read that right) has a creepy little monkey that he’s trained to pick pockets. One day, while applying his trade, he’s noticed by a couple of gangsters who want to put Keitel and his monkey to work. The monkey, sick of being treated as a means to an end, I guess, runs away and is found by a little girl (Early 90s “it girl” Thora Birch) who really wants a pet, and isn’t creeped out at all by the prospect of a primate that puts his grubby little hands all over her and likes to pee on the floor. After a while, Keitel starts a-looking for his monkey, and Birch finds out the monkey likes to steal things and get her in trouble. Hijinks, inevitably, ensue.
Suffice it to say that this movie hasn’t held up well, although, to be fair, it probably didn’t start out in the best of regards, either. Keitel, who’s a long way from “Mean Streets” here, isn’t a very good gypsy. In terms of consistency, Tommy Wiseau probably could have do a better job. The production design is goofily dated. For example, I love that we can tell Thora Birch is cool and sassy because she dresses like one of the kids from “Ghostwriter” (another now-laughable 90s phenomenon). The whole movie in general is a salute to the frumpy fashion of the time. Oversized T-shirts, mom jeans and amazingly plain dresses all make cameos. Nobody (and I do mean nobody) looks good.
There’s also a lack of convincing performances here, and not just from Keitel. Birch is just kind of floppy, and not too clever. She’s not very compelling, and looks like she could use a good wash for most of the running time. The adults in the movie are pretty clueless, and despite a good potential for conflict within Birch’s character’s family (she lives with her mother, stepfather and half-brother), that relationship is never really explored. Birch just kind of accepts it without issue, in spite of the many children’s books and movies that claim kids usually aren’t very comfortable with that change.
In addition to all this, there’s the counter-intuitive reaction the parents have to discovering that their child has been harboring an ape in their house. You’d probably think (quite rightly) that the appropriate response would be “get that filthy thing out of here.” But you’d be wrong. The response here is surprise and delight, despite the fact that the creature in question is a) a monkey, and b) has been stealing wallets and jewelry all over town. Oh, you’ve re-conditioned the monkey not to steal in the course of a single afternoon? Of course you can keep him, honey.
But I guess it’s a little unfair of me to judge. After all, “Monkey Trouble” was not made for 22-year-olds with film blogs. It was made for 6 year olds who liked monkeys—and it turns out that there were a lot of those back in 1994, or at least enough to make several other similar movies with that demographic in mind. It just goes to show that between movies like this and movies like “Theodore Rex,” the 90s were a time both of great creativity and misguided ideas that somehow sold. Were there better movies I could have revisited this week? Almost certainly. But I’m kind of glad I got to see “Monkey Trouble” again, if only to remind myself how weird parts of my childhood were.
New Line Cinema released both this movie and “Theodore Rex” within a year of each other. What are you willing to bet that the guy who green-lit those projects didn’t have a job by 1996?
Also, did you catch the blurb on that poster at the top? Roger Ebert claimed this was a great family movie on a level with “Free Willy.” Anyone else surprised?
Considering the number of animal-related movies that came out between 1990 and 1999, this was probably a good time to be an animal trainer.