If this movie let me down at all, it was that there simply weren’t enough misadventures detailed, though even the filmmakers would acknowledge this and immediately respond to American’s insatiable appetite for pointless experiments involving chimps and long-suffering girlfriends by serving up a sequel, The Monkey’s Uncle, only a year later.
There isn’t a story per se going on in this one – it’s more of an episodic slice of life affair, detailing a few days in the topsy-turvy life of Merlin Jones, a guy that spends his time driving around town with a helmet containing lots of wires and electrodes on his head.
Things begin at good old Midvale Vocational Institute with Merlin working on a really souped up EEG machine when some wire touches another wire and the next thing you know, Merlin’s helmet is electrified and he’s flopping around like a kid who really does need to wear a helmet.
Merlin isn’t dead, brain damaged, or even wet his pants, but he has acquired a brand spanking new super power! He can hear other people’s thoughts!
So how long do you think it is before he hears somebody’s thoughts and ends up mistaking what they’re thinking for some type of crime spree they’re planning? About half a day. (He had to try his powers out in the library before he really got down to business.)
But who is this miscreant that’s plotting and scheming all these diamond heists? A judge! But not just any judge – it’s the very judge who has sworn to crack down on all those college inventors that are always running Midvale’s red lights with their EEG helmets and their EKG codpieces on. College inventors just like Merlin Jones!
Merlin eventually convinces the cops that he can read minds, but they still won’t go dig up the judge’s rose bushes to find the diamonds he’s hidden there. Merlin immediately goes to Terror Alert Level 5 and gets girlfriend Jennifer (Annette Funicello) to grab a shovel and head out with him under cover of darkness to start digging the evidence up on his own!
Merlin gets busted for digging up the flowers and everyone goes into the judge’s house where the judge explains that he has all these thoughts about crime and stuff because he is really secretly best-selling crime novelist Lex Fortas.
When it was all done, I was thinking, “well that was pretty good – we had some misunderstandings, some solid gags in the library where everyone was thinking funny stuff, and a kid with a helmet on his head, but you know what would have really elevated Merlin Jones’ game from role-player to franchise player? A chimp!
But how to work the chimp into things? How indeed. Merlin’s science class begins a unit on hypnotism so the second half of the film concentrates on his efforts to hypnotize animals! I couldn’t help but feel like I was witnessing one of the great moments in cinema history when I was watching Tommy Kirk trying to hypnotize a cat.
Next stop is the research lab housing Stanley the chimp, who is being watched by Norman, a football player who is mean to Stanley. Merlin uses his hypnotic powers to get Stanley to “stand up for his rights” and this involves Stanley punching out Norman and causing Norman to go crashing into a bunch of beakers and getting conked on his noggin.
Merlin is brought up on assault charges and the truth comes out about how Norman mistreats Stanley and in the end the judge issues protective orders preventing either Merlin or Norman from harassing Stanley.
After the case is over, the judge smells a good plot for the eagerly awaited next Lex Fortas novel and enlists Merlin and his expertise in hypnotism. The judge wants Merlin to hypnotize him into committing a crime. (“Nothing felonious”, the judge says. “A misdemeanor will do.”)
Following the perhaps not unexpected botched scheme to hypnotize the judge into kidnapping Stanley, Merlin somehow finds himself on trial for the crime instead!
He tells Jennifer in an amusing jail house scene that he is going to try and use an old oriental method of hypnosis that just involves hand gestures and music on the judge in court to get him to recall that he really stole the chimp. I dare you not to snicker when they’re in court and Jennifer is making a kazoo noise with a napkin while Merlin is using all these swami-style hand motions on the judge.
There are enough moments of dopey teen inventor fun here to keep fans of such things mildly satisfied. Kirk is actually pretty good at selling his good natured enthusiasm for his experiments and gets off some nice facial expressions during the stranger occurrences he encounters.
Annette doesn’t have a lot to do in this, other than play the befuddled and put upon gal pal, but she generates some laughs when she’s visiting Merlin in jail and utters every bit of cliched jail conversation you could think of.
The first half of the movie is a bit bland and any yuks you’ll get are mainly in the second half, but it’s like I always say, “a half a movie starring a chimp is always better than a whole movie without a chimp.
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