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BEHIND THE PLANET OF THE APES

Host: Roddy McDowall
Directors: David Comtois and Kevin Burns
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Image Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 127 Minutes
Release Date: August 7, 2001

"Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"

Film ***1/2

When 20th Century Fox first greenlighted a strange science fiction film about a world where man was the lowest order of animal and apes were the dominant species, it was considered a great leap of faith. As it turns out, Planet of the Apes kicked off one of cinema’s most enduring and lucrative franchises, spawning four sequels, two television series and a barrage of merchandising that would make even the Disney studios green with envy. Now, more than three decades later, it has inspired a remake, and its success has proved that the world still hasn’t gotten enough of these magnificent creatures who mirror us, fascinate us, and frighten us at the same time.

All of this, of course, makes for a perfect time to go Behind the Planet of the Apes. This two hour documentary, originally airing on American Movie Classics, is one of the best of its kind. Hosted by the late great Roddy McDowall, this feature film really knows its history. From the original novel forward, it looks at the Ape phenomenon with plenty of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, rare clips and more.

Of particular fascination to me was the subject of money. In order to work, the apes in the picture had to be completely believable, so it’s no surprise that a great chunk of the original budget went to the creation of revolutionary new makeup techniques and appliances. But even though the film was a huge hit, subsequent films were budgeted less and less money owing to Fox’s continued financial struggles throughout the decade. In the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, you can actually see the results of the tightened purse strings: in many scenes, actors are obviously wearing simple pullover masks, making the effect rather ludicrous.

But other factors besides makeup and money made the first film work, not the least of which was an impressive cast, led by Charlton Heston as Taylor, the renegade astronaut who heads out into the unknown with a scornful attitude about the nature of man, and later becomes man’s only voice of reason. And the apes, led by Roddy McDowall as Cornelius, Kim Hunter as Zira, and Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius, really rose to the challenge of letting emotion and intelligence shine through their disguises. Some behind-the-scenes shots show what the actors had to go through, not only in getting the makeup on, but in trying to function normally while wearing it (eating and smoking both posed unique problems).

McDowall is an affable host and probably the best person for the job, having appeared in four of the five films (twice as Cornelius, twice as his grown son, Caesar) and again in the television series. His thoughtful performances are a good part of what made the pictures so possible, and they even lent an air of quality to the lesser movies in the series.

Like most franchises, the Apes films eventually played themselves out without ever achieving the surprise and greatness of the original. Still, even when the movies stopped, people were clamoring for more, buying up the merchandise and tuning in to the later live action and animated television series. This documentary really manages to capture and reflect upon the cultural giant that Planet of the Apes became, and journeying through the various incarnations with cast and crew recollections is an informative and entertaining trip down memory lane.

Video ***1/2

Though composed of various film elements from varying time periods, Behind the Planet of the Apes manages to be a very good looking DVD overall. The modern interview footage all looks great: clean, clear, with good natural coloring and sharp detailed images. Clips from the different films and programs all look clean and restored as well, making the overall viewing experience a fluent and satisfying one.

Audio **

No complaints about the simple stereo mix…it serves the film well with no problems, but given the nature of the program, it’s nothing spectacular. Dialogue and music are perfectly rendered throughout, but there’s not much dynamic range or true panning to work out your system.

Features ***1/2

This double disc offering from Image is quite a treat in the extras department…in addition to the film, the first disc includes three complete short featurettes on the various films, the 1967 NATO presentation, a restored film clip of the original makeup test featuring Edward G. Robinson, trailers for all the films, an Easter egg photo gallery and animated menus with sound. Disc two features a two hour long unedited interview with Roddy McDowall, a real treat for film fans, but a bit on the unimaginative side as far as the filmmakers are concerned. For example, Mr. McDowall offers at one point to stand up and demonstrate the way he stood and the way he walked to make the ape costume look right on screen, and even suggests a split screen image showing him next to a photo of himself in the full makeup for comparison. Great idea, but they don’t do it. Still, he’s a well-spoken, thoughtful speaker with a warm sense of humor, and I enjoyed listening to what he had to say. Disc two also includes a lengthy montage of dailies and outtakes from the first film. All in all, an extremely good package from Image.

Summary:

Behind the Planet of the Apes may be included in the box set of Ape movies from Fox, but this special double disc offering from Image is a real treat that doesn’t require you adding substandard movies to your collection. Any fan of the original film or films, plus anyone who just really loves movies in general, will enjoy this quality offering. Recommended.