[Screen It]

(2000) (Kevin Zegers, Jamie Renee Smith) (PG)

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Children's/Drama: A hockey-playing chimp turns around the fortunes of a losing team as well as that of a newly arrived brother and sister when he shows up in their small Canadian town.
Jack is a precocious chimpanzee living at San Diego's Pueblo University where he works with Dr. Kendall (LOMAX STUDY) and is cared for by Darren (RUSSELL FERRIER), his somewhat mentally handicapped keeper/janitor. Although Jack is a favorite among the students who study his behavior and is supposedly a genius, he's not working out that well in the study. That, along with the recognition of his failing health has Dr. Kendall arrange for Jack to be sent back to the El Simian Nature Preserve to be with his simian family.

Unfortunately, Dr. Kendall dies before that happens. When Darren then overhears Dean Peabody (OLIVER MUIRHEAD) announce his plans to sell Jack to another university for medical testing purposes, he secretly puts Jack onboard a train headed for El Simian, telling him to get off when he hears that stop being announced. It's a long trip, however, and Jack sleeps through the stop, ending up at the end of the line in Nelson, British Columbia.

There, California natives Steven Westover (KEVIN ZEGERS) and his deaf younger sister, Tara (JAMIE RENEE SMITH), are trying to adapt to their new surroundings. Although their parents, Mark (PHILIP GRANGER) and Susie (INGRID TESCH), are loving and supportive, Tara isn't happy because she thinks no one likes her due to her disability and Steven believes his hockey days are numbered.

That's because the local Junior B league team, the Nuggets, haven't won a game in a long time and the players have adopted a defeatist attitude. With their best player and team captain, Pete (AARON SMOLINSKI), sidelined with an injury, the goalie Magoo (RAY GALLETTI) needing glasses, and other players, such as Moose (SHANE VAJDA), being more interested in roughhousing than winning, there's little Coach Marlowe (RICK DUCOMMUN) can do with the team, much to the chagrin of stadium announcer Willy Drucker (DAVE THOMAS).

That is, until Jack shows up. First secretly staying with Tara, the chimp soon makes his way onto the ice and proves his abilities as both a skater and scorer. After Coach Marlowe convinces the board of directors that a hockey-playing chimp will draw in the crowds and thus generate increased revenue, Jack takes to the ice and not only leads the team to victory, but also helps Steven and Tara fit in with their new surroundings and classmates.

When news gets out about Jack, however, Dean Peabody sets out to reclaim the chimp, causing Steven, Tara and everyone else to come up with a plan to allow Jack to play in the championship game and prevent Peabody from selling him to another university.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Like many people, I've long been fascinated by chimpanzees. Perhaps it's because they and their ape kin - gorillas and orangutans - possess far more of that unique combination of both animal and human characteristics than their monkey cousins. Then again, it could have to do with growing up watching "Lancelot Link," "Wild Kingdom" and other shows where chimps were either the stars or special attractions. (Sorry, J. Fred Muggs - who appeared on the "Today" show during the '50s - was a bit before my time.)

Whatever the case, the appeal of those intelligent and expressive creatures probably had something to do with the fact that I didn't half mind the thought of spending an hour and a half watching a hockey-playing chimp in "MVP: Most Valuable Primate." An otherwise formulaic and mediocre film from the folks who brought us "Air Bud 1 & 2" (and the forthcoming "Air Bud 3: World Pup"), the picture is generally sweet and clearly has the right intentions of entertaining the youngest of filmgoers with a benign and uplifting story.

Yet, for older kids and adults, the film's predictable and simple plot, occasionally ham-filled overacting and lack of much substance for those in middle school and beyond might mean some mild (and perhaps severe) cases of going ape and otherwise monkeying around rather than watching the film.

Like the "Air Bud" films, this one features a sports proficient critter who's not only good at scoring points, but also at managing to brighten and better then lives of those he interacts with. If you're so inclined, feel free to call this "The Legend of Lancelot Link" (rather than "Bagger Vance"). The result, as in many run-of-the-mill kids films, is a story where the outsider character resolves the film's variously set-up dilemmas in rather simplistic ways.

Here, a young deaf girl -- nicely played by Jamie Renee Smith ("Dante's Peak," "The New Swiss Family Robinson") - who previously felt alienated due to her condition, finds resolution and happiness by simply bringing Jack the chimp to show and tell. Her older brother - decently but not spectacularly played by Kevin Zegers who's making a career out of appearing in such films (he starred in the first two "Air Bud" films and is returning for the third) - receives a similar resolution when the chimp hits the ice and saves both the boy's future hockey career and the team's pride.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with such "fix it" scenarios, the way in which producer turned writer/director Robert Vince (making his debut) and his co-writer/executive producer wife Anne craft the production isn't particularly clever, imaginative or even compelling. That is, unless you're under six-years-old, in which case you'll probably be having a hard time reading and/or understanding this review, but will otherwise enjoy the sight of the simian star (who's actually played by three different chimps) doing his thing on ice and in the home (where he showers, brushes his teeth, makes coffee and even gets his own breakfast, etc.).

Of course, the cute chimp isn't on the screen all of the time, and during his absences the film quickly stalls. The major "Mighty Duck" type subplot doesn't really offer much to the proceedings, while the whole bit about a university dean -- horribly overplayed by Oliver Muirhead ("Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," "She's Out of Control") without any redeemable "malicious charm" - is even worse, although the Cruella de Vil type characteristic fuels the plot and adds a touch of much needed conflict.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. There's certainly nothing wrong with a film set on entertaining the little ones and even playing down to their level of mentality (thus the simplified and recognizable problems/dilemmas and solutions). Yet, the best ones (the "Toy Story" films, for example), work on several levels, always managing to entertain both kids and adults alike, without adding any undue risqué material for the latter group.

Spotting former "SCTV" star Dave Thomas ("Coneheads," "Strange Brew") as the hockey team's PA announcer, I thought that just might occur here (much like Fred Willard in a similar role in "Best in Show"). Alas, that doesn't happen and a golden opportunity is squandered, with an "Apocalypse Now" reference ("I love the smell of Zamboni fumes in the morning") being the "best" the film has to offer in that regard.

That's not to say that it's a horrible film by any means, and it's certain to entertain young viewers, especially once it arrives on home video. Yet, with a little more creativity, imagination and some sort of deviation from its otherwise predictable and formulaic nature, the film could have been much better and consequently more appealing to a larger demographic.

Decent and appropriately targeted to the younger set but clearly not as good as it might have been, "MVP: Most Valuable Primate" rates as a 5 out of 10 simply for being the average of how it will probably play to kids and the adults who are forced to watch it with them.

Reviewed November 2, 2000 / Posted November 3, 2000

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