The A(pe)-list: Famous primates in pop culture

To celebrate the Year of the Monkey, we look at some of the most recognisable and iconic chimps, gorillas and other primates

Photos: TPG, various
Photos: TPG, various
30 Jan 2016

Photos: TPG, various

Happy Chinese New Year’s Eve! This year, we are preparing to usher in the Year of the Monkey, a critter widely regarded as man’s closest cousin in the animal kingdom. And, as the following pop culture primates have proven, they are able to achieve a level of fame that rivals that of high-profile human beings as well. Read on to meet them:

For more CNY 2016 features, visit our microsite here. Have a swinging Chinese New Year!

Sun Wukong
Sun Wukong
30 Jan 2016

Sun Wukong

Chances are, if you asked someone to name the first and most famous Chinese mythological character they can think of, Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, would be pretty high on most folks’ lists.

According to Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel which introduced the world to Sun Wukong in the late 1500s, the staff-toting and headband-wearing hairy hero was born from a magic stone and possessed superhuman – or rather, super-monkey – powers. He was also extremely mischievous and power-hungry, a trait that drove him to wreak havoc in the Heavenly Kingdom, which then led to his well-deserved 500-year imprisonment before being released to aid Tang Sanzang in his legendary pilgrimage.

Although the story is over 400 years old, it has continued to be adapted into numerous forms of media – including movies, television shows, games, theatre productions and comics – to this day. Sun Wukong has also been at the centre of several spinoffs of his own, and has been played by everyone from Chen Bolin to Donnie Yen to Liu Xiao Ling Tong (whose portrayal in the 1986 TV series remains one of the best-known and most widely-acclaimed ones), proving that he is one form of monkey business that everyone can – and wants to – get involved with (including our very own Dennis Chew, who stars a couple of hilarious skits on Channel 8’s Facebook page as the Monkey King making zodiac predictions at the supermarket).

The latest adaptation The Monkey King 2, starring Aaron Kwok and Gong Li, is in cinemas February 4.

King Louie from ‘The Jungle Book’
King Louie from ‘The Jungle Book’
30 Jan 2016

King Louie from ‘The Jungle Book’

Fun fact: did you know that King Louie, the bossy and pyromaniacal but musically talented monkey ruler who wants to walk, talk and be like men, from Disney’s 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book – and later, its 1994 live-action version – is not found in Rudyard Kipling’s original stories? Well, that’s because orangutans simply aren’t native to India, where the story is based (they’re found in our neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia instead).

The creators of the upcoming remake seem to have taken this factual hiccup into consideration, and made King Louie a massive Gigantopithecus, a species of ape that went extinct thousands of years ago and whose fossils have been discovered in India, instead.

We wonder if they’ll be getting him – and his voice actor Christopher Walken – to swing around and sing merrily like his first predecessor.

Disney’s The Jungle Book, also starring Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Scarlett Johansson, is in cinemas April 7.

The gorillas from ‘Tarzan’
The gorillas from ‘Tarzan’
30 Jan 2016

The gorillas from ‘Tarzan’

While The Jungle Book’s Mowgli was raised by wolves, Tarzan was brought up by a band of gorillas who sing lullabies and trash camps (at least, in the Disney animated version). In the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, however, we’re faced with a much more gruesome gang of apes.

In fact, with the exception of Tarzan’s adoptive mother Kala, pretty much none of the animals are the friendly critters we know and love from the cartoon – leader Kerchak, although grumpy in the animation, goes on full-on murderous rampages in the book, and even Tarzan’s step-brother Terkoz (depicted as a tomboyish Rosie O’Donnell-voiced female by Disney) hates him and kidnaps Jane at one point. Yikes.

Yep, we’ll take the much more approachable, singing, dancing and generally fooling around bunch in the Disney-fied version any day (although we highly doubt that’s what we’re going to get in the upcoming star-studded gritty remake).

The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson, is in cinemas this July.

King Kong
King Kong
30 Jan 2016

King Kong

Ever since his introduction in 1933, the most recognisable giant gorilla in the world has been terrorising cities from the time he was a black-and-white stop motion figurine to his latest form as a motion-captured CGI mammoth controlled by Andy Serkis (who also played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films). In between, he’s been the star of countless other mediums, including cartoons, comics, video games, theme park rides and even a musical.

And it appears we are far from done with more Kong reincarnations: next year, we’re getting Tom Hiddleston- and Brie Larson-fronted reboot Kong: Skull Island, which, according to Tom, will not take place in the 1930s (as it usually has been) and will offer a brand new take on the famous fable. Then, in 2020, brace yourself for an epic clash of titans in Godzilla vs. Kong – a.k.a. a fight we do not want to find ourselves in the middle of.

Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong
30 Jan 2016

Donkey Kong

Dear 80s and 90s kids, did you just get fond flashbacks of trying to navigate Mario to the top of a steel structure to rescue your lady, while a frowning ape tries to thwart your attempts by hauling barrels and other objects down at you?

Although it seems like an overly simple concept compared to today’s high-tech offerings, the Japanese arcade game was a massive hit when it was first released 35 years ago. Donkey Kong went on to experience many makeovers and spinoffs, sometimes switching sides to become the protagonist instead, and was even the star of his own animated series Donkey Kong Country.

His newest appearance showed him in his original environment (as a baddie tossing barrels from the top of a stack of beams) in last year’s Pixels, with a super cool remix of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ as the background soundtrack. Many publications have featured him in various “best” rankings (for both heroes and villains), and he remains to this day one of Nintendo’s most iconic mascots.

‘Planet of the Apes’
‘Planet of the Apes’
30 Jan 2016

‘Planet of the Apes’

Andy Serkis dabbled in CGI monkey business once again when he played ape revolution leader Caesar in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second most recent addition (not counting the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes, scheduled for a 2017 release) in the sci-fi franchise since its beginnings as a French novel in 1963. Other thespians who have portrayed these highly evolved talking primates include Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth and the late Kim Hunter.

The very first silver screen adaptation hit cinemas in 1968 and was lauded for its ground-breaking plot (where ultra-intelligent apes are dominant over humans) and Oscar-winning makeup, and spawned seven more pictures, two TV shows, as well as books, toys and video games. Its themes have even made an impact in the political arena, with the phrase “planet of the apes” being used to represent the overturning or reversal of social status quo (most commonly race-related).

Ah Meng
Ah Meng
30 Jan 2016

Ah Meng

The Sumatran orangutan went from being an illegally smuggled pet to the poster girl of our Singapore Zoo, attracting visits from thousands across the globe including movie royalty (Elizabeth Taylor), music royalty (Michael Jackson) and British royalty (Prince Philip). In fact, so beloved was she that when she died at the ripe old age of 48 – or 95 in human years – in 2008, a crowd of 4000 showed up at her memorial service to pay their last respects, with many even shedding tears.

During her long life as a star, Ah Meng was featured in over 30 documentaries (including one with the late Steve Irwin) and 300 articles. She also became the first and only non-human recipient of the Singapore Tourism Board’s Special Tourism Ambassador in 1992. Today, she lives on in her descendants, who now roam and swing around the world’s first free-ranging area for orangutans in a zoo, and as the namesake for several eateries in the area.

In short: here is a primate who has achieved so much more than some of us humans ever will.

Crystal the Monkey
Crystal the Monkey
30 Jan 2016

Crystal the Monkey

This capuchin monkey is probably constantly grinning for a reason: she has her very own IMDb page and a stellar acting résumé to fill it up. She made her film debut in 1997’s George of the Jungle as a baby monkey, and by 2015, she had appeared in almost 20 other films and TV series and worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum (yes, she played the adorably annoying Dexter) to Bradley Cooper in The Hangover Part II (as a drug-dealing monkey, no less).

To top everything off, the “Angelina Jolie of animal stars” was conferred the Lifetime Diva Achievement Award at the 2015 Pawscars (yup, that’s the Oscars for our critter friends). Other things this superstar simian has achieved include appearing on talk shows, walking the red carpet, posing for ultra-glamorous photo shoots, and, erm, getting away with peeing on the late Robin Williams.

Jack (the monkey) from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’
Jack (the monkey) from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’
30 Jan 2016

Jack (the monkey) from ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’

It’s not every day you come across an undead monkey who hangs around – or rather, hangs on – ruthless pirate lords. Although a minor character in the franchise, Jack (obviously named after everyone’s favourite rum-chugging, eyeliner-wearing scoundrel Jack Sparrow) gets a few entertaining moments of his own throughout the movies, such as being shot out of a cannon (he can’t die, after all), being shot at point blank range to prove his invincibility, and turning his otherwise menacing owner Captain Barbossa into a cooing puddle of goo.

Although Jack is just one character, he had to be played by many different capuchin actors, both male and female (and no, none of them were Crystal). Unfortunately, these spunky scamps were reportedly difficult to work with and had to be sprayed with squirt guns in order to command their short attention spans – and poor Geoffrey Rush, who had the most scenes with them, was sometimes in the line of fire.

Rafiki from ‘The Lion King’
Rafiki from ‘The Lion King’
30 Jan 2016

Rafiki from ‘The Lion King’

Sage old Rafiki the mandrill (a species closely related to baboons and drills) can be seen as the Yoda to Simba’s Luke Skywalker, with the deep wisdom, ability to be highly in tune with the unseen (nature, the Force etc.) and grumpy old man-like demeanour to go with the comparison. Thanks to him, we have this gem of a quote to live by: “The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

Although the long-tailed royal adviser is a male in the animated Disney franchise, he got the gender-bending treatment in the award-winning musical versions and was portrayed by women instead, as the director felt the play lacked a strong female protagonist.

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