Ask anybody who has worked with apes on a movie set: The creatures may seem endearing on the screen, but they can be a pain in the neck - if not downright scary - in person.
So why not take the safe and intelligent route and get an animated primate? If it worked for “Mighty Joe Young” - whose title gorilla was supposed to be 10 feet tall - then it’ll work for a normal-size chimp.
That’s the masterstroke behind “Ed,” an ape comedy whose title character is actually an elaborate motor-driven chimp outfit, occupied by stunt actors and controlled by electronic devices. The robotics are there if you know what to look for, but most viewers will be content to let the fantasy transport them.
The human quotient is accounted for by Matt LeBlanc, of network TV’s “Friends.” LeBlanc plays a careworn minor-league ballplayer who learns how to loosen up and enjoy life by becoming the best of friends with this team-mascot chimp named Ed (as in Sullivan). LeBlanc is quite effective as the uptight soul, and his impersonation of a working ballplayer includes quite a bit of convincing game play.
Of course, the real champ is the chimp, who, when sent into play as a prank, proves to have a lightning arm and an impossibly narrow strike zone. That’s the gimmick, and it’s a crowd-pleaser.
David Mickey Evans’ screenplay is as pleasantly predictable as any of those “Francis the Talking Mule” pictures that were all the rage during the 1950s and that, by no coincidence, have gained a new relevance via video with the very kid audience that will make or break “Ed” at the box office. Director Bill Couturie uses Evans’ refreshing avoidance of one-liner gags to concentrate on visual humor, and the operators of the chimp-a-tronic mechanisms reward this opportunity with a rambunctious, fluid performance.
Couturie first registered with a general audience as a cartoon animator for “Sesame Street” on television. But he also owns a Best Documentary Oscar as producer of “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” the 1989 collection of human dramas behind the AIDS statistics, and with “Ed” he merges an antic sense of comedy with a profound compassion.
For in the final resolve, “Ed” is a tale of beings - human or not - from vastly different backgrounds, who develop a lifesaving friendship. It’s good-humored and good-hearted in about equal measure, and this quality will stay with the viewer long after the film’s easier laughs have been forgotten.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Ed” Locations: Credits: Directed by Bill Couturie; starring Matt LeBlanc, Jack Warden Running time: Rating: PG