Enos was the first chimp to be launched into orbit, but he got beat in a race to the big screen.

The animated film "Space Chimps" recently made its debut on about 2,600 screens across the country. Meanwhile, a group of rival animators has toiled for years on their version of a primate-astronaut flick called "Enos."

It's a common phenomenon in the film industry. Sometimes two projects arise with similar themes at the same time, often due to sheer coincidence. Sometimes the first film to hit the market is the winner. Either way, the stakes can be high.

"Vice Versa" with Judge Reinhold, beat Tom Hanks' "Big" to the multiplexes in 1988, but the latter film was a huge hit. Both told the story of a boy transported into a man's body. "Capote," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, was an indie success in 2005; "Infamous" starring Toby Jones, less so when it hit theaters a year later. Both films told the story of Truman Capote's researching "In Cold Bold."

"Chimps in Space" and "Enos" both began their developmental journeys more than 10 years ago.

"Space Chimps," produced by Los Angeles-based Vanguard Animation and financed by industry heavyweight Starz Media, takes a fanciful approach to its storyline, electing to feature a group of simian astronauts on a heroic mission to a far away galaxy.

Dusty Wakefield and more than a dozen animators with experience at industry giants such as Walt Disney Co. and DreamWorks are crafting their narrative for "Enos" from the experiences of the first chimpanzee to orbit the Earth, buying the rights from Ed Dittmer, the U.S. Air Force sergeant who trained Enos and six other astrochimps. Enos is still at least two years away from audiences.

Wakefield said that he began developing the storyline for "Enos" while working on "Iron Giant" for Warner Bros. in the 1990s.

That was about the same time that "Space Chimps" director and writer Kirk De Micco was pitching his simian space tale to John H. Williams, one of several producers of DreamWorks' "Shrek" franchise.

De Micco said he came up with his idea for "Space Chimps" while watching the 1983 movie "The Right Stuff."

"My first working title for the film was 'The Wrong Stuff,' because I wanted to write a fun story about a bunch of chimps getting into trouble on a space mission," said De Micco, whose credits include "Quest for Camelot."

Vanguard produced "Space Chimps" for about $37 million, Williams said, modest compared with other animated fare such as Disney/Pixar's $180 million "Wall-E."

Williams and De Micco said that they were unaware of Wakefield's "Enos" project until the Business Journal called. But De Micco said that he wasn't surprised that someone else would be working on a space-chimp theme.

"There are only so many milieus or backdrops that you can draw from when you're dealing with films and especially when you're dealing with animation," De Micco said. "It's no wonder that there are any number of similar film plots and themes all in various stages of development at any given time."

In the case of "Enos" versus "Space Chimps," the question of sales won't be settled for a while.

"Being the first out of the gate doesn't necessarily mean instant success," said "Enos" producer Marc Sternberg. "We wish 'Space Chimps' all the success in the world, but I believe that there's enough room for both of our pictures."

Sternberg was executive producer on Universal Pictures' 1999 film "October Sky," starring Chris Cooper. He also produced Regency Enterprises' "Mirrors," staring Kiefer Sutherland, which opens in theaters in August.

Research material

When he started working on the story of Enos, Wakefield sought out documentary filmmaker David Cassidy, who produced and directed "One Small Step: The Story of Space Chimps" for research material.

Cassidy later became known for his pro-freedom of speech documentary called "Shut Up and Sing," about The Dixie Chicks.

He made the chimps documentary as a student, and used mostly public domain archival footage. But he also interviewed Dittmer, who was the trainer for Enos and Ham, the first chimpanzees to be launched into space.

Cassidy introduced Wakefield to Dittmer and several other former Air Force non-commissioned officers who were involved in the space-chimp program.

Wakefield met with Dittmer in New Mexico, near the base where the chimps were trained.

Dittmer said he had never expected to be working with the animals.

"Then he told me about how Enos wanted nothing to do with him, either," Wakefield said. "But in the end, they became very close. Dittmer thought of Enos as one of his own children."

"Enos" ends dramatically, with the chimp piloting the space capsule at 17,000 mph around the Earth while enduring electric shocks because of an in-flight malfunction before splashdown and recovery onto a ship. When he was pulled to the ship, Enos hugged Dittmer for the first and only time.

With that in mind, the question of whether "Space Chimps" would hit screens first is secondary for Wakefield.

"When I heard Ed tell that story, we both had tears in our eyes," Wakefield said. "That's when I knew, no matter what, I'm going to make this film."

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