The Evolution of the Movie Ape

the evolution of apes in movies over the decades

The English naturalist Charles Darwin shook up the science and religious worlds in 1859 by theorizing modern man had evolved from lesser lifeforms in his book On the Origin of Species. Whether he was right or not is a religious and scientific debate for another time. Instead, let's discuss something we do have undisputable proof of - the Evolution of the Movie Ape.

For almost a eighty years Hollywood and audiences have been fascinated with the onscreen depiction of actors and actresses playing the role of an ape. As special effects technology and makeup techniques have improved over the years, audiences have been treated to better and more realistic depictions. Sometimes, (and in the case of the new release Rise of the Planet of the Apes) the makeup or SFX job is so good that the line between real ape and fake ape has been blurred - you may be astonished to find out some of the apes on this list were actors in suits.

Most people think there are only a couple of ways actors can portray apes onscreen, when in fact there are five distinct and different techniques that special effects department monkey around with for various roles. Those techniques are:

  • Makeup
  • Facial Prosthetics
  • Body Suits
  • Stop Motion
  • Motion Capture

We could go through this list as a straight timeline starting with King Kong in 1933 and ending with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 but that wouldn't be a true representation of how the movie ape has evolved. Instead, we are going to break the apes and their films into the individual effects categories, then take a look at how each the movie ape attempt  in those categories have improved or worsened. No one category is better than the other, but each is completely different and has its own strengths and weakness.

Let's lay down a couple of ground rules before we get started. In order to make the list, the ape must have been created by special effects - in other words no live apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, spider monkeys or other primates qualify. There are plenty of great onscreen performaces by live animals (I'm partial to Clyde from Every Which Way but Loose) but they aren't the ones being discussed today.

Let's get started with the lowest rung on the evolutionary movie ape ladder - makeup.



Makeup effects have vastly improved over the years, with better glues, hair pieces and application techniques being invented all the time. However, when it comes to turning actors into apes, the makeup techniques seem to have plateaued. Using just makeup to turn actors into apes only occurs in order to depict apes with human-like characteristics - ones who can talk or interact more as humans than they do apes. Bela Lugosi kicked things off in 1943 playing the first human-ape hybrid in The Ape Man but these "missing link" style characters weren't seen again until long-time ape actor Peter Elliott portrayed Assassimon in The Island of Dr. Moreau and Jorma Taccone played Chaka from Land of the Lost. Because the makeup effects are considered to be low in quality and standard, it is probably no coincidence that each of these movies turned out to be a bust as well.

The Ape - The Ape Man (1943)

Bela Lugosi as The Ape from The Ape Man


Assassimon - The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)

Peter Elliott as Assassimon in The Island of Dr. Moreau


Chaka - Land of the Lost (2009)

Jorma Taccone as Chaka from Land of the Lost


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