APE-RIL Orders Room Service While the Two Cents Roundtable Watches DUNSTON CHECKS IN

The team looks at the oft-forgotten 90s family comedy where Faye Dunaway, Jason Alexander and Rupert Everett all take second billing…to a monkey.

Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: Dunston Checks In

In honor of Kong’s return in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, this month the Two Cents Film Club is going ape for APE-RIL!! We’re looking at a lineup of ape-themed movies with some surprises in the mix. Our third entry is 1996’s Dunston Checks In. The movie boasts an all-star cast in a madcap adventure tale set in a Plaza-like hotel where a chimpanzee named Dunston finds his way in, befriends a young boy (Eric Lloyd), and hilariously wreaks havoc in one of New York’s most luxurious hotels.

The Team

Ed Travis

To some degree, like with most “chimps on screen” films, Dunston Checks In derives a fair amount of laughter simply out of the primal human instinct to think “look at that funny monkey doing funny things”! No doubt I was not above that and indeed my daughter and I chuckled mightily throughout this film on that base level alone. But the film around the monkey on screen is surprisingly earnest and whimsical, boasting a cast of such quality as to astound someone who is experiencing this film for the first time here in 2024. The leads are a couple of child actors who acquit themselves just fine, but their father, who manages the 5 star hotel Dunston checks into and where the kids live and play, charmingly, is none other than Jason Alexander! Faye Dunaway is his cutthroat businesswoman boss, and Paul Reubens shows up as an animal catcher. I’m not here to say this is some kind of mid-90s family classic, but 5-star hotel antics, jewel thieving monkeys, endless slapstick gags, a monkey film that homages Planet Of The Apes and King Kong amidst our own Ape-ril journey, and a family coming together are enough to make me happy I sat down with my daughter and checked in on Dunston. 

(@Ed_Travis on Xitter)

Jay Tyler

As others have pointed out, I was pleasantly surprised by Dunston Checks In. It certainly isn’t some hidden gem, and it certainly hits every expected “90s live-action comedy for kids” trope it can. Haggard father trying to balance being good at his job and also being a good day? Check, thanks to Jason Alexander. Outlandish antics, mostly to disrupt snooty adults? Check again. Liberating animals for abuse, a weirdly common theme of film from this era? You got it again.

What is more surprising is the madcap energy of the thing; I did not expect a moment where Alexander screams a perfectly timed and executed “Holy shit!” at his first viewing of Dunston. I did not expect multiple scenes depicting adults drinking and smoking. I didn’t expect innuendo-laden jokes throughout, including multiple gags about people being caught crawling under tables and the clear implication there. I didn’t expect to see Dunston’s blood. It all feels a bit more anarchic than similar fare of today, and like it was dipping its toe in dangerous waters by not talking down to its intended audience. Gore Verbinski’s incredible debut Mouse Hunt is probably the closest equivalent, and while Dunston never elevates to quite that level of forgotten treasure, there are enough surprising and actively amusing bits that it passes the bar of “better than you’d think” easily.  

(@jaythecakethief on Xitter)

Frank Calvillo

I’m not sure who ever thought that monkeys would make great movie stars, but someone clearly did as evidenced by the existence of titles both popular (Every Which Way But Loose) and obscure (Monkey Trouble). While the former made Clint Eastwood and Clive a winning onscreen duo, hardly anyone remembers the former, a 1994 comedy starring Thora Birch (in her “cute camera-ready kid” era) and a monkey who turns out to be a trained thief. The lack of success (or originality) of that movie didn’t stop 20th Century Fox from getting into the monkey movie business themselves with this comedy from 1996. Borrowing many of the same plot points from Monkey Trouble, the film pairs another cute kid (this time The Santa Clause‘s Eric Lloyd) with an orangutan (the titular Dunston) and places them smack dab in the middle of a 5-star hotel in the big apple. 

There’s a tendency to go for cheap laughs in Dunston Checks In. Gags such as a continuous stream of raspberry sounds, or scenes like Dunston going crazy as he jumps over a wealthy hotel guest as she lays on her back while thinking she’s getting an invigorating massage are par for the course. Director Ken Kwapis is a capable enough filmmaker with a track record to back him up. But there’s a tendency on his part here to go for the obvious joke, believing that’s what kids find funny.  

Kwapis and company do manage more right with Dunston Checks In than one might assume, however. For starters, the movie has the brilliant idea to take its wildly eclectic cast and place them in situations that are totally against type. Jason Alexander plays the straight man, Faye Dunaway does Lucille Ball-like slapstick, Rupert Everett revels in cartoon villainy, and Paul Reubens is delightfully unhinged. All seem to be having a ball and each are given their own comedy moments, no one more so than Glenn Shadix, whose every scene as a much-beleaguered hotel guest gets the movie’s most surefire laughs.

There’s also a slight, but undeniable “Eloise at the Plaza” storybook feeling about the whole affair thanks to its setting, which the filmmakers take real advantage of by placing Dunston in a variety of situations. But apart from the fun (both obvious and genuine), Dunston Checks In aims to be a tale about a boy and his unconventional friend, both largely ignored by the worlds they come from who form a bond. While the script doesn’t offer much in the way of nuance when it comes to this aspect, it more than makes up for it in both Lloyd’s natural ease in front of the camera and in the chemistry he shares with his furry, adorable co-star.

(@frankfilmgeek on Xitter)

Austin Vashaw

I’m not sure what possessed us to check out this 90s kid-flick with a 17% Rotten Tomatoes score, but despite its poor critical reputation it wasn’t half bad. On the contrary, it was light and fun – precisely the kind of mid-budget, live action, PG-rated family movie that used to be fairly ubiquitous in the 80s and 90s, but has for the most part been obsolesced by a modern landscape driven by algorithms and bankable IPs. In addition to its primary primate this slapstick adventure features a handful of terrific actors (Jason Alexander! Paul Reubens! Faye Dunaway!) hamming it up and, by the look of it, having a great time. In what may be the biggest surprise of Ape-ril, Dunston Checks In is worth checking out.

(@VforVashaw on Xitter)

Upcoming Picks: APE-RIL! (In Celebration of Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire)

Upcoming picks:
King Kong (2005)
Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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