There’s not much to “Summer of the Monkeys.” The family film set at the turn-of-the-century is dripping with old-fashioned values and warmth in the tradition of “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie” and effectively ambles through its relatively cut and dried story. The absence of contemporary resonance severely limits theatrical prospects, but it would seem a natural for TV sales both domestically and abroad that could motivate some modest video movement.
Set in an unspecified time in an Edenic rural America, the film’s focus is the near-picture perfect Lee family. Father John (Michael Ontkean) is a hard-working farmer who prays for good weather, his wife (Leslie Hope) is attentive, and their children include the precocious Jay Berry (Corey Sevier) and the crippled Daisy (Katie Stuart). In the nearby town, Gramps (Wilford Brimley) runs the general store.
Jay Berry’s dream is to save up enough money working at the store during summer recess to buy a pony, and he sees his chance to earn some extra money when a quartet of circus monkeys escape into the wilds after a train wreck. The young boy stumbles onto their new found enclave near the farm but capturing them and collecting the posted reward prove to be a bit of a challenge.
Along the way, Jay learns some valuable life lessons that will presumably form the bedrock for his adult character.
While the sentiments are noble, the storytelling is banal and predictable. Script by Greg Taylor and Jim Strain is cookie-cutter clean and shamelessly telegraphs its points. Vet director Michael Anderson (“Around the World in 80 Days”) follows the blueprint closely but can’t get up the steam to add colorful flourishes in the monkeys’ antics, darken the menacing elements or even get better than passable performances from the film’s day players.
The cast is largely bland or cut from a too familiar bolt of cloth. Sevier is an appealing if uninspired youthful lead, and Stuart is rarely called on to be more than decorative. Brimley is effective in the type of role he’s played too often, but Ontkean and Hope strain to give credence to essentially stoic characters.
Pic strives to revive a nostalgia for bygone values but paints a glossy ideal that lacks credibility. It’s difficult to swallow the notion of hard times when the images are pristine and the settings are untrammeled. The nostalgia has less to do with an earlier piece of recorded history than with movies of the past that created blissful, unrealistic portraits of family life as feel good entertainment.