Monkey Business: The All-Time Smartest Apes

Published August 06, 2011

| LiveScience

With the Planet of the Apes prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes in theaters this Friday, we thought that it would be a good time to look at the vast array of super-intelligent apes in pop culture.

What is it about apes that makes purveyors of pop desire to assign them above-average intellect? Is it their soulful eyes? Is it the visual disconnect between vast strength and superior thinking capacity? Is it that they’re already smarter because they hang out in the jungle while we work in offices? Let’s face it; no ape was ever stuck in a cube being lectured on cover sheets for TPS reports.

Whatever the reason, smart apes continue to pop up in comics, cartoons, novels and films. Let’s take a look at some of the notables and try not to insult their intelligence. [Top 10 Mysteries of the First Humans]

Robby the Robot
If you looked up "robot" in the dictionary (and it happened to be a dictionary with pictures), there very well might be a picture of Robby from 1956's Forbidden Planet, pretty much the archetypal old-school sci-fi robot.

Robby's got such an iconic look, that the same prop appeared in multiple subsequent movies and TV shows, ranging from The Twilight Zone to Mork & Mindy. The plainly named Robot from 1965-1969's Lost in Space ("Danger, Will Robinson!") took several visual cues from Robby, and both share a common designer, Robert Kinoshita. Bringing things full circle, Robby appeared in a couple episodes of Lost in Space.

Gorilla Grodd

When it comes to super-intelligent apes, no one is smarter than Grodd. Just ask him.
With a genius exceeded only by his ego, Grodd was the hairiest enemy of The Flash. Given a pop culture boost by his membership in the Legion of Doom, putting him in the midst of the storied team from the "Challenge of the Super Friends" season, Grodd has gone on to appear in a number of animated series and ancillary merchandise, including coloring books!

Grodd action figures feature in several DC lines, including vaunted Collect+Connect status in a wave of DC Universe Classics. Still vital in the DCU, Grodd recently starred in a Flashpoint one-shot, Grodd of War. Smart apes come and go, but Grodd has staying power.

Detective Chimp
He drinks, he smokes, he wears a Sherlock Holmes hat. He’s Detective Chimp, and whether you realize it or not, he’s been in the DCU a long time.

He was there for the Crisis on Infinite Earths. He stepped up to help lead the Shadowpact. He popped over to Batman: The Brave and The Bold for not one, but two episodes! Not bad for a chimp with a magnifying glass.

Quite likely an uncredited inspiration for Lancelot Link, the good detective occupies that space where comics can be anything to anyone at any time. Sure, he’s kind of silly. But where is the law that says we can’t have that in a big crazy fictional universe? Besides, he’s probably smarter than all of us anyway. [Top 10 Scary Sci-Fi Series]

Mojo Jojo
An ape I may not exactly be, but smarter than any ape I am! I am . . . MoooOOJO JOJO! Arch-nemesis to the Powerpuff Girls! Look at me now when I am describing myself to you, and bask in my simian radiance!

Once the oppressed lab assistant of Utonium, I have distinguished myself with my genius! It matters not that my motivations extend from jealousy! No one is greater than I . . . MoooOOJO JOJO! Doubt me at your peril! My schemes have included turning all of Townsville into dogs and . . . what?! It matters not that they fail! It matters that they are evil! I . . . the girls are coming? I do not flee, but strategically withdraw!

POGO
The Umbrella Academy’s resident ape genius, Doctor Pogo was a friend of The Monocle, a.k.a. Sir Reginald Hargreeves, who specialized in, among other things, “cerebral advancement of the chimpanzee."

Hargreeves also raised a dysfunctional family of gifted and super-powered children. When their father’s death brings the children of the Umbrella Academy back together as adults, Pogo gets involved with their adventures. Unfortunately for Pogo, he soon meets his death at the hands (or strings) of the White Violin. It all worked out pretty well for creators Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, though; the first Academy mini-series won an Eisner for Best Limited Series in 2008.

Ape-X
A female ape genius that’s a tragic heroine? Look no further.

Ape-X was a part of the Institute of Evil, the sworn enemies of the Squadron Supreme in that team’s classic eponymous maxi-series. After being defeated by the Squadron, the Institute members were subjected to behavior modification. Ape-X lent her genius to the work of Tom Thumb of the Squadron, even going so far as to fall in love with the hero.

Unfortunately, Tom succumbed to cancer. Even worse for poor Ape-X, she wound up in a vegetative state after trying to inform on scheming members of the extended Squadron conflicted with orders in the behavior modification process. 

Monsieur Mallah
Who wouldn’t have wanted to have been in that pitch meeting? “The villain is a brain! A brain in some kind of a tank! And his assistant is a gorilla! A gorilla wearing an ammo belt and carrying a machine gun! And he speaks French! And wears a beret!” And later on . . . “And he and the brain are a couple!” You gotta love comics.

In case you didn’t know, Monsieur Mallah hails from the Brotherhood of Evil, later renamed the Society of Sin. He was the servant/love interest of arch criminal The Brain. Mallah has appeared in a number of DC comics over the years, and has made the transition to animation on Teen Titans and Batman: The Brave and The Bold.

Clyde
And using your hand for turn signals was never the same.

Clyde the orangutan appeared in two Clint Eastwood films: "Every Which Way But Loose" and "Any Which Way You Can." Proving again that the ‘70s were their own kind of bizarre alternate dimension, the film followed bare-knuckle brawler and trucker Philo Beddoe as he traveled the country with Clyde and his human buddy Orville. Philo invariably ran afoul of assorted miscreants, notably the Black Widows biker gang.

Though Clyde has a number of great scenes, his undisputed classic moment is, simply, “Right turn, Clyde.” See for yourself. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp! Would you believe a chimp that’s a spy?

Audiences in the ‘70s did ... for a couple of years, anyway.

Lancelot Link
Lancelot Link worked for APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) and fought the forces of CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan). The cast were actual chimps, given human voice-overs by actors on the set that would frequent ad-lib to match things that the apes did spontaneously. The whole affair was inspired by Get Smart, but it’s its own kind of bananas.

Asides in each episode featured the chimp band “The Evolution Revolution." They even had their own album released. [Top 10 Artificial Intelligence Projects Gone Amuck]

Dr. Zaius
Maybe it’s a little self-reflective in a piece inspired by a new Planet of the Apes film, but we can’t leave out Dr. Zaius. Dr. Zaius is the prime example of what goes wrong when you try put the authority of both science and religion into one man, er, ape.

An orangutan, Zaius is both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith. How could that possibly work? Lies and conspiracy! Zaius knows that there was a civilization of talking humans on Earth in the past, and he works to suppress that knowledge.

Unfortunately for him, the arrival of Taylor (Charlton Heston) throws that all into upheaval.

Zaius has the distinction of appearing in the original Pierre Boulle novel, two films, the live-action TV series and the animated series. On top of that, he was immortalized in glorious Planet of the Apes musical on The Simpsons.

Ishmael
If you don’t know the telepathic gorilla from the books of Daniel Quinn, you’re missing out.
First introduced in Ishmael in 1992, the gorilla deconstructs the notions of myth, civilization, and the illusion of man’s superiority in a type of Socratic dialogue with his human student. The novel is a fascinating and challenging work of philosophy (unfortunately pillaged for, of all things, the movie Instinct) that Quinn followed with three more related novels and his own autobiography.

Granted, Ishmael’s beliefs on sustainability and ecology don’t exactly put him in the same strata as some of our other countdown entries, but he’s well worth the mention.

  *   10 Wizards That Can Kick Harry Potter's Butt
  *   8 Humanlike Behaviors of Primates
  *   10 Coolest Robots in Pop Culture History

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