Friday, March 28, 2014

Worth Mentioning - This Giant Fearsome Stranger

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody observes as King Kong returns in animation and suitmation forms.

THE KING KONG SHOW (1966 - 1969)

Producers Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass are two of the biggest names in animation, best known for their Christmas specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Year Without a Santa Claus, as well as features like Mad Monster Party? and popular cartoons of my '80s youth, Silverhawks and Thundercats. Fittingly, in 1966 they got into business with one of the biggest names (and characters) in pop culture, King Kong.

Rankin/Bass produced twenty-five episodes of a Saturday morning cartoon show entitled King Kong, or also known as The King Kong Show, that ran on ABC from September of '66 to the end of August 1969.

The pilot episode, which was later split in half, increasing the show's run to twenty-six episodes, sets the series up with a remake of the original 1933 King Kong. Rather than a film crew, the ship captained by a man named Englehorn brings to Skull Island, here usually renamed Mondo Island ("Skull Island" references slip through in some episodes), the Bond family - single father scientist Professor Bond, who has come to the island to conduct some kind of research, his teenage daughter Susan, and young son Bobby.

When Bobby ventures too far into the jungle, he finds that the island is inhabited by all sorts of prehistoric creatures... and he nearly becomes a snack for a T. Rex. That's when the legendary giant gorilla King Kong makes his entrance and pummels the dinosaur into unconsciousness.

Kong quickly befriends Bobby and the rest of the Bond family, hanging around them like a giant pet, obeying Bobby's commands.

The Bond family doesn't want to exploit Kong, but Professor Bond would like to take him back to the United States, specifically to the Science Foundation labs in Virginia, to run some tests on him. The attempt to get Kong to the U.S. on a raft hauled behind Englehorn's ship turns out to be disastrous. Following a giant octopus attack and a vicious storm, Kong ends up in New York City... where he climbs up the Empire State Building while the Bonds desperately try to keep the military from harming the rampaging animal. Given that it was the pilot episode for a series, you can rightly assume that things turn out much better for this animated Kong than they did for his stop-motion counterpart.

The episodes that followed were quite simplistic in their storytelling, each containing two short Kong mini-adventures with a Tom of T.H.U.M.B. story sandwiched in between, Tom of T.H.U.M.B. being a very tiny secret agent.

The Bond family stays on Mondo Island with Kong, and stories revolve around them dealing with the creatures they share the island with, trying to keep the place safe from outside threats like aliens, poachers, mining companies, and killer bees, as well as trying to keep the world safe from the evil schemes of a madman called Dr. Who (not the Gallifreyan Time Lord).

There's not a whole lot to The King Kong Show, so it's obvious when watching it why it isn't more well remembered. If it didn't have King Kong, if the large animal in it went by a different name, it likely would've faded even further into obscurity than it has. But it's still an entertaining bit of harmless distraction that I'm sure was a lot of fun for the kids who enjoyed it on Saturday mornings as it aired.

Animation duties were handled by the Toei company in Japan, and when Rankin/Bass were looking to get a live action adaptation of the cartoon made, they took the project to Japan's Toho Studios, the studio behind 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Toho was glad to get back into the King Kong business, but when screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, writer of Mothra and several Godzilla films, turned in his draft of the script, Rankin/Bass were not satisfied. Sekizawa's story had King Kong hanging out on an island and thwarting a terrorist organization, much like the cartoon Kong thwarted Dr. Who, but it wasn't close enough to the animated series for their liking.

While Sekizawa's screenplay was rewritten into the Godzilla movie Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (a.k.a. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep), Rodan writer Takeshi Kimura began writing the script that would meet Rankin/Bass's approval and reach screens in 1967 under the title King Kong Escapes.


Takeshi Kimura's screenplay isn't to-the-letter faithful to The King Kong Show, but he did pick and choose certain characters and settings to use from the cartoon.

Rather than the Bond family, Kimura's story centers on submarine Commander Carl Nelson, who has an intense interest in the legend of King Kong, a sixty foot tall gorilla that is said to live on the island of Mondo somewhere in the East Indies. He has dedicated years worth of his free time to researching Kong, and for some reason has even gone so far as to design a robotic doppleganger called MechaniKong.

The design of MechaniKong was stolen by a former associate of Nelson's, a unscrupulous fellow called Dr. Who. Who has now constructed the MechaniKong that Nelson visualized, although not for any purpose that Nelson would support. Working for an unnamed country represented by a woman called Madame Piranha (played by Mie Hama of King Kong vs. Godzilla, in which she portrayed an unrelated character, and this same year's Bond film You Only Live Twice), Who has built MechaniKong to retrieve 10,000 tons of the mysterious, radioactive Element X from a crater at the North Pole. Only a few ounces of Element X have previously been found on Earth, but with this massive haul Piranha's country will be able to gain nuclear dominance and be ruling the world within a few months.

MechaniKong does well at his job digging up Element X for a while, but his circuitry soon shorts out. Piranha gives Who a short time to work out the issues, or he'll face serious consequences...

While on an oil scouting mission for the United Nations Research Council, an issue with his submarine turns out to be a lucky break for Commander Nelson - the sub has broken down just off the coast of Mondo Island, home to his fascination. After making their way onto the island in their hovering boat, encountering an elderly native who warns them about Kong's presence, Nelson, his Lieutenant Commander Jiro Nomura, and the submarine's nurse Lieutenant Susan Watson do indeed get to see the legendary monster with their own eyes.

As he is apt to do, King Kong takes an immediate interest in the young woman before him, snatching up Susan and placing her safely in a tree just in time to save her from a dinosaur-like creature called Gorosaurus. Much like Kong fought a T. Rex while Ann Darrow looked on in 1933's King Kong, Kong battles Gorosaurus to the death as Susan watches, and ultimately even dispatches him with the same finishing move.

Before the submarine heads away from Mondo Island, Kong does battle with another giant creature, a sea serpent reminiscent of the plesiosaur that was also fought with in the 1933 film.

By the time she leaves, Kong is so enamored with Susan that he even obeys her commands, like putting her down when she tells him to. When Nelson and his crew report their experience with Kong to the U.N., news of the giant gorilla and how he was compliant with Susan spreads around the world... Even reaching Dr. Who.

Since MechaniKong failed at excavating the Element X, Who decides to put the version of Kong that doesn't have circuitry to work at the job. He performs a militaristic raid on Mondo Island, killing the native islander, knocking out Kong and carrying him off to the North Pole. And since Kong obeys Susan, he also has her kidnapped, along with Nelson and Jiro, to make sure Kong will go through with the Element X dig.

Things do not go as Who planned, however, and the situation escalates until a climactic sequence that features King Kong facing off against MechaniKong in Tokyo... and on the Tokyo Tower...

Toho's big guns were hired to bring King Kong Escapes to the screen. The film was directed by Ishirô Honda, the man behind Gojira, Rodan, and Mothra, as well as several Godzilla sequels, including King Kong vs. Godzilla. The score was provided by the legendary Akira Ifukube, and the suitmation and model effects were created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the suitmation pioneer who had been inspired to get into special effects after watching the original King Kong.

I have to say, I do find the King Kong suits in both this film and vs. Godzilla to have a rather silly look to them, but I go along with it just fine.

Within the suit of Kong is veteran suitmation performer Haruo Nakajima, the man who played Godzilla more times than any other actor. Nakajima was Godzilla when he faced off against Kong in the earlier Toho production, and while that film's Kong performer Shôichi Hirose is in the cast of King Kong Escapes, it's not as a monster, he's credited merely as playing a "Henchman". As both MechaniKong and Gorosaurus is Yû Sekida, who had suitmation experience himself from playing Sanda in The War of the Gargantuas, Ebirah in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and even Godzilla in Son of Godzilla.

Despite having some great effects, entertaining characters, and an interesting Bond-meets-kaiju plot (James Bond, not the Bond family), King Kong Escapes doesn't really draw me in, I've never been able to get into it. The movie just doesn't hold my attention. While there are some nice moments of action, the pacing of sequences allows my mind to wander. I enjoyed the film more during this most recent viewing that I have previously, but still much less than several of the other kaiju movies I've watched this year. It's certainly worth checking out, especially as it's the most oddball Kong movie there is, but I was disappointed by it overall, I thought I'd have a much better time with it.


  1. Very good piece. I haven't seen the KONG cartoon in many a moon, except for a few on Youtube. It's only positive influence may be in giving KING KONG ESCAPES a template for their better-than-average flick.

  2. Yeah King Kong Escapes battling the giant robot kong and then doing in the villian at the end