Lots of film directors have a niche. Hitchcock made thrillers, George Romero thinks only in zombie, and if super slow motion was a woman, Zach Snyder would date rape her at a party. However, one director whose name probably doesn’t come to mind is Robert Vince. I’m here today to correct that. Robert Vince deserves to be a household name, carved into park benches and whispered in middle-school locker rooms worldwide, because Robert Vince is a great man. Because Robert Vince makes movies about dogs, and chimps in human clothes that play sports.
To explain such a career, ironically, I must begin at the beginning.
In 1999, a rough kid from the streets who led with his fists and, sometimes, his heart, came to Hollywood with nothing but the shirt on his back and a dream; a dream that someday, a dog would become British royalty and hijinks would ensue. I would love to post the trailer for you here, but the footage was literally too incendiary for the internet.
Ensue they did, and before long, the script that Vince had co-authored with his wife Anne and Philip Detweiler would go on to become the highest-grossing movie about dog croquet in the history of VHS.
But some say trouble lurked behind the scenes. Vince chafed under the direction of helmer Philip Spink, who seemed to have his own vision for the project. Vince found Spink’s style “too corporate”, and when the first batch of dailies came in, he fumed that Spink was trying to turn all his work into “some watered-down pooch flick.” Meanwhile Spink, still bathing in the afterglow of the success of his last film, a little bigfoot-basketball picture called Big and Hairy, resented Vince’s meddling, and secretly referred to him as “that two-bit mutt peddler from Simi Valley.” Vince privately railed that he wasn’t about to take script notes from “some cheap knock-off sasquatch movie clown,” but in the end, cooler heads prevailed. Like Lennon-McCartney, many believe it was the artists’ conflict that eventually made The Duke what it was.
MVP: Most Valuable Primate
By 2000, Vince had the clout he needed to make things happen and was off doing the kind of projects he’d always dreamed of. Plenty of arm chair aficionados have called the period from 2000-2005 Robert Vince’s golden age. And it all began with a little film about an ape named Jack who played hockey. When Robert Vince was a little boy, many people had said hockey was a sport for under-evolved apes. Never content to let sleeping chimps lie, Robert Vince let his nuts swing; he called their bluff. Rumors of an off-screen romance between married star Alexa Fox and MVP leading man Mac the chimp filled the tabloids. Vince never commented on the scandal publicly, but one thing was for certain: the country had gone bananas for monkey films.
MVP: Most Vertical Primate
After Most Valuable Primate, Robert Vince was the toast of Hollywood, an ape movie visionary. But as the old saying goes, in this town, you’re only as good as your last picture. Vince knew he had to recapture the magic of Most Valuable Primate, but also up the ante. Luckily, everyone in town wanted a piece of him. He wasn’t just some snot-nosed kid with a hand-me-down camera shooting ape flicks in his dorm room anymore, he was Robert f*cking Vince, the Silverback of the chimp flick trade. He had a budget. He could demand extravagant sets where an ape didn’t just play hockey, he shredded half pipes on a skateboard. He could afford an unprecedented level of talent, A-listers like skateboarder Bob Burnquist, Home Improvement‘s Richard Karn, a guy who looked like Sam Neill, and of course his secret weapon, a young, floppy-necked dynamo named Aubrey Tennant. Before long, Robert Vince was the latest overnight success in a town known for making them, and he took his new life of excess like a monkey to the trees.
Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch
After MVP, it seemed like every barista and valet in Hollywood was falling all over himself trying to get Robert Vince his chimp script. But Vince turned his back on all of them. He refused to be labeled a one-monkey-trick pony. Instead he went after his vanity project, Air Bud, the franchise whose films about dogs playing basketball and soccer had been his only salvation when he was laid low during a bout of restless leg syndrome. So in 2002, he took over production on Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch.
Throughout production, the trades had a field day. “Dogs can’t swing bats, Vince has finally gone ape sh*t,” screamed their headlines. But Robert Vince had a pun title and a vision, and yet again he proved the doubters wrong.
MXP: Most Xtreme Primate
After nearly a year of backpacking in China with the Dalai Lama, Robert Vince felt he had rediscovered the things that truly mattered to him, the chimp stories in his heart that were just hooting to get out. And so he returned to Most Xtreme Primate and doing what he did best. Or so he thought. After turning in what he thought was some of his most important work in years, his film was met with a lukewarm reception, both critically and commercially. It’s difficult now to remember a time when MXP wasn’t the cult-classic it is today, hailed as an influence by artists as disparate as Pink and Halle Berry, but in 2003, it seemed the world just wasn’t ready for an ape with such in-ya-face attitude.
Chestnut: Hero of Central Park
Vince took the disappointment of MXP hard. He began to question his own talent. He knew he had to change or there’d be no place for “an old monkey wrangler like me.” So in 2004 he took a job directing Chestnut: The Hero of Central Park, the story of an abandoned puppy who turns life in the orphanage upside down. The film was memorable for one of the early performances of Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin, but it was obvious to anyone Vince’s heart wasn’t in it. If the animals didn’t dress like humans, what was the point? It was a question no one seemed prepared to answer.
Two years after Chestnut and finally free of addiction to cocaine and risky sex acts, Vince returned to the only thing he knew: movies with primate in the title. But this was an older, wiser, Robert Vince, a virtuoso who wanted to show he had nothing to prove with acronyms, colons or an elaborate pun title. He knew he could get his point across with one word, both a premise and a rhyme. Rising like a phoenix, he proved he was still the Robert Vince of old: the man, the myth, the monkey movie legend.
Rail grinds, sword fights, and Mr. Miyagi. It’s hailed worldwide as the high-water mark of chimp cinema. Sadly, it was to be his last.
Following Spymate, Robert Vince thought he was on top of the world. Then, tragically, tragedy struck. His young son, Tarzan, was struck and killed by a garbage truck. The boy had been blind in one eye after an unfortunate altercation with Mac the chimp, and Robert Vince blamed himself. He was convinced depth perception would’ve prevented his son’s death. He wrote a tribute song, “When I See You in Monkey Heaven,” and dedicated it to little Tarzan. He was a chastened, changed man. He converted to a strict sect of Scientology that strictly forbade chimps from wearing clothes, which they considered an abomination. And so began Robert Vince’s “Buddies period.”
Many say Robert Vince had been throwing himself into his work to forget, and in the process, created a series of commercially successful, but largely forgettable films. I mean puppies in space? Who was he kidding. Like Paul McCartney’s time with Wings, it was cute, but so what? What was the point? To keep Christopher Lloyd flush with hooker money? In the end, we have to settle for remembering Robert Vince for what he was: a visionary whose flame burned bright for a short time and then faded, like a comet in the night sky.