THE MONKEY’S UNCLE (1965)
Sleep-learning! Human-powered flight! The vaguely scientific hijinks resume in The Monkey’s Uncle. Directed by Robert Stevenson, this sequel to The Misadventures of Merlin Jones is like the original in both structure and content, because if something made your studio a whole bunch of money, why fix it? The success of the original was even enough to get Disney to bring back Tommy Kirk, who they had just fired for being gay, to reprise his role as Merlin Jones. So, does this all amount to anything other than an unfortunate mess?
The film opens with a rather boring scene that exists only to justify the film’s labored pun of a title. Merlin goes to court to legally adopt Stanley the chimp, but citing lack of precedent, Judge Holmsby (Leon Ames) declares Stanley to legally be Merlin’s nephew instead. GET IT?
Either the judge loves shitty jokes or is swiftly losing his grip.
I’d bet on the latter.
Just like its predecessor, The Monkey’s Uncle consists of two entirely unrelated segments. In the first, the star players of Midvale College’s football team are in grave danger of being expelled, due to their abysmal grades. Since winning at sports is significantly more important than academic integrity, Judge Holmsby (who, in addition to being a judge, is on the college’s board of regents) enlists Merlin’s help to try to find an “honest” way to help the football team cheat on their exams. Meanwhile, Merlin Jones is busy proving himself to be a shitty ape guardian.
Shenanigans for shenanigans’ sake!
Merlin is eventually able to use a specialized type of sleep-learning that he designed for civilizing his monkey to help the football players ace their exams without putting in any work or actually absorbing the information they were supposed to learn. Hooray for science, I guess? In any event, that’s all that happens in the first half of the film, which is unfortunate, since teaching football players about Shakespeare is fucking boring.
The excitement is palpable.
In the second half, Merlin must again save the football team, this time by earning a huge donation from an eccentric donor. Darius Green III (Arthur O’Connell) is willing to give Midvale College $20,000,000 but only if Merlin Jones can prove that man can fly under his own power. The fact that this had already kind of been proven at the time the movie came out doesn’t matter, apparently. Anyhow, Merlin, uses his sleep-learning machine to brainwash football player Leon (Leon Tyler) into thinking he’s a bird.
This is totally ethical, and will absolutely end well.
Merlin builds a prototype flying machine for this hopeless sap to test, and launches it off the roof of his car. All goes well, until Merlin remembers that, psychopath that he is, he has neglected to provide Leon any means by which to land the contraption.
Haha, Merlin just sent his friend to his death!
Luckily Leon lands safely in a pigsty and Merlin avoids manslaughter charges. Turns out launching off of a car doesn’t count and Leon risked his life for nothing. Humans just aren’t strong enough to fly on their own power. Well, until Merlin invents steroids, that is. Then they fly just fine.
Please note that Merlin doesn’t have any trouble remembering
to put landing gear on when he’s the one flying.
Of course, it turns out that the man offering the huge cash reward was an escaped mental patient, so this was all for nothing. Oh, and the football team wasn’t ever in danger either. Everything is fine, and still would have been if the events of the movie had never happened. The end.
In The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, we met a terrifying young scientist who feels he has every right to use hypnosis to reshape the world as he sees fit. The good news about the sequel is that Merlin is no longer a loose cannon using science for whatever purposes float his personal boat.
There is world domination in those eyes.
The bad news is that the movie puts science firmly in its place, and that place is subordinate to college football. Yes, every action undertaken by Merlin’s brilliant mind is in service of a sport that results in brain injuries for a third of its professional players. The football team lures Merlin into their frat and cajoles him into helping them cheat their way through college. The players are only looking for an easy ride, and display their disdain for education and intelligence at every available opportunity. They figure one brain in the fraternity is more than enough.
Though one may be as high as they can count.
Merlin is hesitant, but Judge Holmsby, the only real authority figure in his life, pressures him into working for the jocks. In fact, the judge is as bad as any of the players in his disregard for education. When trying to convince Merlin to work out a tough problem, he shows that he can’t even be bothered to learn scientific basics, saying, “Don’t you think Einstein was discouraged before he discovered… whatever it was he discovered?”
It’s reassuring to know that this man is running the courts.
What we end up with is a movie about a science genius who is constantly playing second fiddle to dumb lugs. Sure, Merlin is smarter, but the success of the athletes is more valued by society. We don’t see the judge worrying that Merlin’s science experiments aren’t getting enough funding, but he nearly shits his pants when he finds out that the football team might get disbanded. So remember, kids, being a nerd is okay, I guess, as long as you still care about football, and help football players cheat at tests, and win money to fund football. Football, kids. Football.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
The Monkey’s Uncle’s biggest flaw is the same as that of its predecessor: the film is bifurcated into two insulated chunks. It feels like you’re watching two episodes of a thoroughly mediocre TV show, and that really kills the flow. It is also worth noting that sleep-learning, the subject of the first half of the film, is inherently dull. Nobody wants to watch a character learn and nobody wants to watch a character sleep. Put them together and you just have two times the boredom.
Just because you stuck wires to someone’s head doesn’t mean I want to watch them snooze.
Add the fatigue of repetition that comes with sequel territory, and it’s really no surprise that The Monkey’s Uncle never achieved classic status.
- As with the first film, the opening credits are more enjoyable than what follows. This time, Annette Funicello is joined by the Beach Boys to perform a catchy, if somewhat grating, ditty by the Sherman brothers.
Somewhere Micky Dolenz is kicking himself for not landing this gig.
- At one point, Merlin berates Stanley the chimp for watching a brainless western. It’s totally Disney’s Westward Ho, The Wagons! which I watched earlier this year.
Apparently even Disney is able to admit that Westward Ho sucks.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
At the best of times, Merlin Jones treats his girlfriend Jennifer (Annette Funicello) with disinterest and apathy, but there are moments in The Monkey’s Uncle where he is downright cruel. After giving him a pep-talk, Jennifer suggests a potential solution to his scientific problem. Instead of thanking her, Merlin simultaneously takes her idea and insults her, saying, “Jen, you’ve done it again. You’ve just put your finger on it with your dumb question!” He then turns around and menacingly lunges at her.
Jennifer, understandably, punches him in the face. He pops back up, blathers something about how awesome adrenaline is, and when she expresses her legitimate confusion, he triples down on his assholery by saying, “Will you try to be scientific for a minute and not just feminine?” Don’t you love it when a movie’s protagonist insults his girlfriend, attacks her, and then makes a sexist comment? Sure is the bees knees.
For all its faults, The Monkey’s Uncle is slightly more enjoyable than The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. While it still suffers from ostensibly being two 45-minute mini-films, at least this time the more interesting of the two comes second. And hey, the titular monkey gets more to do this time around, and who doesn’t like watching a chimp fuck around with stuff? If you’re looking for a weird old Disney movie to get drunk to or something, you could totally do better, but you could do slightly worse as well. Check it out. Or don’t.
Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966)