Monday, November 15, 2021

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967)

King Kong vs. Godzilla

When the head of a pharmaceutical company hears of a discovery of a giant ape, King Kong, he sends a team out to capture the beast to use in advertisements. Elsewhere, a naval accident results in the awakening of Godzilla, held dormant in the ice until now. He makes a beeline for Japan, ready to bring the house down, but will find an opponent in his way. Can Kong defeat Godzilla? And what could his victory mean for Japan?...

King Kong vs. Godzilla holds an important place in the series. Not only is it regarded as one of the best, and contains one of his most famous fights, it's also the movie that helped shape what the rest of the series would become, and considered a high point of the genre. Godzilla's first sequel was just a light rerun of the first, with only a little monster action, but after this he would always have a major opponent to fight.

When compared with the original King Kong, this obviously doesn't compare, which is an opinion I think everyone involved would share. However, in no way does that mean this is a bad film, or not a classic in its own right. It's goofier than the 1933 original, and it may just be an excuse for two men in cheesy suits to wallop each-other, but dammit, it does it so well!

The original creative team were mixed on the project. Merian C. Cooper was adamantly against the idea (and while I can't blame him, I do wish he'd have enjoyed this for what it is), while effects titan Willis O'Brien, visual creator of Kong, helped produce the film, and was totally on-board. I'm glad that the one actually responsible for the effects had such respect for suitmation, often seen as a downgrade. He of all people knew the time and money that went into stop motion, and I'm sure didn't judge Toho for simply being unable to go to that length. To him I'm sure effects were effects, an art form no matter what they look like.

The story here is pretty basic, in a good way. It gets the ball rolling quickly, and everything makes sense. A movie about giant gorillas and lizards duking it out should never be overcomplicated, and this goes to show how it can be done.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is know for having a satirical tone to it, poking fun at commercialism and big business. This isn't done in a heavy handed way that dominates the plot, but is instead just a nice supplemental treat, giving some laughs and good social commentary, to make you think a bit after leaving the cinema. It never goes really far with it, but that fits with the vibe, and we do see nastier businessmen get squished in later entries, so I guess it's ok.

The human characters here are an ok bunch, and contribute to the action pretty well, such as the evacuation scene, and the emotional search and reunion.

The monsters are on top form. They do have a habit of disappearing completely from the action when offscreen, but once they return they continue making a good impression.

Godzilla is the bad guy once again, although he's less of an ominous force of nature this time, and more just a grumpy lizard with an attitude problem. The stupid humans woke him up, so he decides to trash Tokyo, as usual.

Kong is just minding his own business on his tropical island, when greedy man decides to drag him out of his habitat for their own personal gain. Kong takes this remarkably well, not destroying as much as you'd expect. Although that may just be because he quickly finds a sparring partner to distract him. He's more neutral than heroic as far as the humans are concerned, but for us he's definitely the hero. A funny moment when a radio announcer specifies Kong is an animal, not a monster borne by radiation.

The monsters get three matches throughout. The first is quick and ends in a stalemate, while the next battle is divided into two. They go spectacularly with many great moments, from Kong getting supercharged by a lightning storm, the funny 'eat your vegetables' scene, and the final scrap on top of a castle.

When it comes to fights between two franchise characters like this, the concern is that either of them winning outright would be unfair to the other. Naturally we don't get a concrete victory for either one, but it's still a satisfying end to the fight.

The effects are great as always. Godzilla is a little cheesier than his first appearance, but is still neat, and hardly a muppet. The King Kong costume looks a bit goofy and low budget, definitely more like a guy in a costume than a photorealistic monster. But it's still well-made, and has lots of character to it. The octopus Kong fights early on looks absolutely fantastic. It oozes around in such a believable way, and is one of the more 'alien' kaijus I've seen. The miniatures are all neat too, and the balloon travel for Kong is well handled, not to mention funny.

The cast here is good all round. A bit goofy in some scenes (although you can't deny they're passionate!), but they keep us entertained while the monsters are offscreen. My only problem is that the guys all look the same. I blame Japanese barbers! They gave all men the same haircut.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is one of the series' entries that were screwed over more than others in the American market. The whole score was removed for being too Eastern (An Eastern score in a Japanese film? Perish the thought!), and so Akira Ifukube's hard work was tossed out the window in favour of some cheap archive music. May well have been good archive music, but still. Scenes were added, reshuffled, or removed outright, and the dubbing changed, removing much of the movie's satire.

While these two monsters only fought once until their 2021 rematch, that was enough to be legendary. It's only a shame how long it took for a rematch. There was talk of an immediate follow-up, as well as a remake in the Heisei era, but it never happened, for one reason or another. But the Yanks eventually delivered for us, and while it may lack the satirical punch of the original, at least a Godzilla film can survive being just goofy kaiju action.

King Kong vs. Godzilla showed the world that the first time wasn't a fluke, nor was the second a full stop, and there was great potential in this franchise. And the following years would only prove this more and more...

King Kong Escapes

A submarine crew visit a tropical island and meet the giant ape Kong, who is smitten with their blonde lieutenant. Meanwhile, mad villain Dr. Who is working with an enemy nation in order to mine Element X, the rarest and most powerful substance known to man. He has built a mechanical Kong to dig for a massive deposit in the Arctic, but after an electrical malfunction, he decides to kidnap the real thing...

A co-production between Toho and Rankin Bass, King Kong Escapes is like a big cartoon brought to life, in the best way possible. While coming from the same company and nation, there is no connection with King Kong vs. Godzilla. This may be a little confusing, but it's not too bad. This is just its own little thing.

King Kong Escapes moves along quickly, always hitting the familiar beats any Kong film should. A tropical island, a beautiful blonde, a rampage in the big city, and some assorted dinosaurs to fight. The plot is fairly goofy, but it works fine.

The villains are a colourful pair. It's already cool enough that he's named Dr. Who (or maybe he's actually Dr. Hu? It's impossible to tell, and frankly that would be much more boring), but he acts like a classic Bond Villain. A nice touch is that he's not actually in command, but instead has to grudgingly report to his contact.

An agent of her unidentified country, Madame Piranha is a wily femme fatale. She tries seducing Commander Nelson but soon falls for him, and begins to realise the ramifications of her and Who's actions. It's a pretty well done character shift, and she is sympathetic in the end. Unfortunately with turning good comes a marked decrease in her combat skills and intelligence, so instead of calmly shooting Dr. Who from afar, she gets too close, and is easily distracted and overpowered.

What's interesting is where Dr. Who got the schematics to even build Mechani-Kong! You'd think he made it himself, since he's a mad scientist and all. But nope, down-to-earth navy sailor Nelson is not only an avid Kong enthusiast, but also an expert in robo-craftsmanship, having drawn up expert schematics for a robot duplicate!

The heroes are an engaging bunch. They share a good rapport, and bounce well off the villains.

And now we get to the most important character-Kong! He's his usual self. Not bad, just a misunderstood giant ape, dragged to the modern world by unscrupulous people. He's at his least violent here, friendly to the good guys, and not causing too much destruction. His biggest concern is defeating the bad guys, then swimming back home.

Mechani-Kong is a great physical antagonist, although he has no real identity of his own, being a slave of Dr. Who's and nothing more. He even speaks with Who's voice at one point, like an intercom, relying on Kong's apparent understanding of the English language!

When it comes to Kaiju films, watching them dubbed is usually fine, though with some caveats. The Godzilla series had some entries that got a bit mangled during the process, as I've discussed. King Kong Escapes however has no such misfortune. Both the English and Japanese versions are identical, and since this was a Japanese-American co-production, it was made with both markets in mind. Which language you watch it in is really up to you. It's fun either way.

The cast is good. Rhodes Reason, Akira Takarada, and Linda Jo Miller are good leads. It's fun seeing Mie Hama get to play a bad guy! I've gotta applaud the film for how multiracial it is. The heroes are a mix of white and Japanese, and there's an interracial relationship here presented very casually. The English dub was done with only a bare handful of actors, and Paul Frees did all the male voices besides Nelson! Miller was dubbed over by another actress, who sounds like Rocky (from Bullwinkle fame), much to her consternation. I thought her voice was cute, in a weird cartoony sort of way, though I totally get Miller's dislike of it. Props to her, she watched the original version of the film too, and paid great compliments to her Japanese dub actress!

The effects are a high point. Kong's design is goofy for the same reasons as it was in his last Toho outing, though he looks a little cleaner this time round, with better defined features. Mechani-Kong is great too. Surprisingly predating Godzilla's robotic rival by almost a decade, he has a neat design to him, and a comic book menace. Suit performers Haruo Nakajima and Hiroshi Sekita do a great job.

The locations and miniatures are all good too. It is funny how quickly the 'tanks' move, but that's a small thing. King Kong Escapes is directed well, with both funny imagery in places, and cool shots, especially of Mechani-Kong!

The music here is all fun stuff. The kind of music you expect from a 60s monster movie, and it all delivers.

King Kong Escapes may not be a worthy follow-up when compared to the 1933 classic, but it never tries to be. It simply aims to be a fun monster flick, and it succeeds marvellously...

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