Friday, February 24, 2012

Random Movie Report #99: Son of Godzilla

The second of Godzilla's tropical adventures ends up being one of the series' weirdest installments. Son of Godzilla, as the title implies, is a continuation of the great monster movie tradition of having inexplicable offspring, a tradition going back to Kong himself (though maybe it started with the Grendel family.) As a result this was the most kid-friendly monster epic Toho had produced up to that point, and so an omen of things to come. It's a fun, loosely put together affair which has a few obvious weak points- including the worst Godzilla suit in the series- but is cute and playful enough to make up for them.

The action takes place on Solgell island, a tropical hothouse on which a group of scientists are conducting experiments in climate control, hoping to lower the island's temperature as a test to see if they can make the barren parts of the Earth more habitable. Perhaps inevitably, the test goes wrong, and instead the island is bathed in radioactive heat for a few days, turning the already-man-sized praying mantises into giant monsters, and uncovering a mysterious egg. Called by a mysterious signal, Godzilla wades ashore just as the egg hatches, releasing an adorable baby 'zilla (never called by name in the movie, but "officially" called Minilla.) Godzilla may or may not have had anything to do with Minilla's birth, but quickly treats him like his own anyway, rushing in to defeat the mantises and taking it upon himself to look after the little fellow. In the meantime the scientists, along with an enterprising reporter (Akira Kubo) and a beautiful archaeologist's daughter (Bibari Maeda) who's gone native after being stranded for over 10 years, are searching for a way off, and it doesn't help them that there's a giant spider named Kumonga just now stirring.

Compared to most monster movies, Son of Godzilla has an almost episodic structure; events flow into each other, but there's no feeling of one central conflict that must be resolved. The people eventually want off the island, Godzilla eventually wants to raise his offspring, and there are the giant bugs to deal with. This does mean a certain lack of urgency pervades the film, but at the same time there's always something happening. Director Jun Fukuda aims for a light approach, comedic without being really campy, and there's a sense that it's okay just to sit back and go with the story's unusual rhythm.

Minilla himself is basically the centerpiece of the film, and it's a step into cutesy territory that carries a few risks. As a rule sci-fi and cute kids' stuff have trouble mixing, and cute kid characters are especially dangerous. Minilla enlists our sympathy by being mostly helpless; he looks like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, breathes harmless smoke rings instead of fire, and walks so slow he has trouble keeping up with his not-terribly-speedy pop. (At one point he adorably hitches a ride on his tail.) The scenes of monster and son bonding are actually kind of fun, and while Minilla does get a little precocious at times, for the most part he's a toddler who needs supervision.

Godzilla himself doesn't fare terribly well this time around. In an attempt to make the king of monsters more paternal and less frightening, SFX directors Eiji Tsuburaya and Sadamasa Arikawa came up with a suit design that ultimately makes him look like an overweight frog. It's ugly by the standards of giant monsters, and kind of sloppily put together to boot. On the upside, the giant mantises and Kumonga the spider are both impressive works of puppetry, and the mantises also get the benefit of the coolest theme music in the film. Masaru Sato did an okay job on the last movie, but here he really lets loose with some jazzy tropical tunes that just scream 60s.

Son of Godzilla
doesn't deliver much of what you normally expect from a Godzilla movie, but it has some pleasures of its own, and stands out as an interesting twist on the kaiju genre. It's cute, it's pleasant, it's visually stunning, and the end is very strangely moving. Purists may object to the cuddly treatment of a monster first seen razing Tokyo to the ground in a metaphorical embodiment of the trauma of the atom bomb, but, well, purists object to a lot of things. This is worth a look anyway.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa and Kazue Shiba
Directed by Jun Fukuda

Grade: B

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