“I’m not doing an animatronic film,” Robert Vince explained during a Dallas stop at a home for children with AIDs; he was accompanied by the chimps who star in his new picture, “MVP: Most Valuable Primate,” about a genius simian who becomes the star of a Canadian hockey team. As the monkeys skated about a parking lot to the delight of the youngsters (they would later appear with the Dallas Stars, as they have with many other professional teams), the writer-director added, “We’re showing a chimp as a chimp is, in a human environment…. Anything they do [in the movie], I want them actually to be able to do it. That’s what [captures] the genuine nature…of the animal.” And, he noted, that’s what earns the affection of his target 5-to-11 audience. “They want action [and] a storyline that makes sense, that goes somewhere, [and that] you can follow if you’re a kid,” he explained. But the picture has to catch the real personality of the animals, too. “These [chimps] are kind, gentle, beautiful animals, and we hope that comes across in the movie,” noting that the character of the monkeys could never be achieved through animation or mechanical tricks, which kids would quickly spot.
Vince is well known for the success of his “Air Bud” movies, about a dog who played first basketball and then football. (Like “MVP,” they also starred Kevin Zegers as the boy who befriends the animal.) The similarity of the idea between those pooch epics and the new picture is a factor of Vince’s personality, which gravitates toward stories featuring sports as well as animals. “People in my company say, ‘If it doesn’t have sports, in it, Robert won’t read it,'” the producer-director-writer laughed. And they seem to be right. But the story of “MVP” also involves a young deaf girl whom the chimp helps to find friendship and acceptance in a new environment, as well as the transformation of her brother’s team from a bunch of lackadaisical losers into a group of hardworking, mutual supportive colleagues, and so fosters ideals of tolerance and reciprocal respect in its audience as well as providing straightforward entertainment.
The notion behind “MVP” came during the making of “Air Bud 2,” when Vince saw a brief scene of a chimp on a skateboard. That led him and wife Anne, who together founded Keystone Family Entertainment, to think about a story centered on a hockey-playing simian. But to answer the chicken-and-egg question, the idea came before the star. They didn’t tailor their script to what a chimp could do: “We made the cardinal assumption that we could teach a chimp to skate, and so we started writing a script, and [trainers] Carol and Greg [Lille] had to come up with the goods. They did.”
Three chimps were actually used in the making of “MVP,” not so much for what they could individually do on the ice, but for the kind of emotion each represented, or, as Vince put it, “what they project.” Berny, Mac and Baby Louie brought different aspects to the character of Jack the Chimp–one his outgoing side, another his sadder, more vulnerable one and the third his infectious youthfulness. And, in a resounding retort to the famous dictum of W.C. Fields, Vince proclaimed, “I have to tell you that I love working with kids and animals, particularly the chimpanzees. It’s a very playful, fun environment.” In “MVP,” his enthusiasm shows.