Saturday, March 31, 2012

Random Movie Report #102: King Kong Escapes

DVD cover and Amazon link

A curious chapter in the Toho kaiju saga as well as its title character's filmography, King Kong Escapes is a film that languished in obscurity for many years, not even getting an American video release until the DVD era. It's definitely a lesser effort for Kong and for Toho, but it's not without its ridiculous charms either. Since it's apparently my lot to cover every SFX film Toho made in this period, well, here we are.

A UN scientific expedition led by Dr. Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason) and Jiro Nomura (Akira Takarada) discovers the island home of the giant ape King Kong, who naturally becomes enamored with the expedition's lovely nurse Susan (Linda Miller). Meanwhile, the evil scientist Dr. Who (Eisei Amomoto), who is not a Time Lord but does kinda look like William Hartnell, has built a robot Kong to mine a precious radioactive isotope from the arctic ice, at the behest of his enigmatic benefactor Madame X (Mie Hama). But when the radiation scrambles MechaniKong's circuits, Who learns about the real Kong being found and captures him. Despite having returned to civilization in the interim, the UN team recognize something's up and get involved as Who attempts to control Kong- and as the title suggests, he doesn't quite succeed.

This apparently isn't a sequel to King Kong vs. Godzilla so much as it is a live action version of Rankin-Bass' animated King Kong series, which has been even more obscure. It's at the very least a do-over for Eiji Tsubaraya, who acquits himself a little better with the Kong suit this time- it's still pretty ratty compared to the animated models of the original, but at least this one doesn't look like death warmed over. MechaniKong (at least that may be his official name) comes off better, and this is also the debut of Gorosaurus, who was in this film solely to help Kong re-enact his famous T-Rex battle but ended up in Destroy All Monsters for his troubles. The effects are a little cheap (MechaniKong seems to attack the real Kong with very bright lights at some point), but mostly functional, and there's the occasional wild touch like MechaniKong opening his mouth to reveal a loudspeaker through which Dr. Who broadcasts an ultimatum.

The story is surprisingly logical, revolving as it does around the abduction of giant apes and the construction of robot apes to take their place. It's a question of internal logic, and once you accept that the best way to do mining for radioactive materials is through primates, the rest falls into place. The script never reveals where Madame X is from, but that starts to become irrelevant as Who emerges as the real villain, which is probably for the best because why be a mad scientist for hire? There are a few other minor points which aren't clear, but this may be a product of editing (the American edit is 8 minutes shorter than the Japanese version.)

The actors at least help keep the characters memorable, even if they're 2-dimensional at best. Linda Miller is decidedly cute in a very 60s way, even if the actress who dubbed her voice (yes, they dubbed the English speakers too) is a little shrill. There's the faintest hint of attraction between her and Takarada's character, but I may be imagining it. While Reason is fairly generic, he fits the bill, and Amomoto is a terrific baddie.

There's nothing too deep going on here, even by the standards of the genre, but it has the goofy conviction that makes so many of these movies work. In many ways it is a live-action Saturday morning cartoon, and by that standard it holds up pretty well. It's nice to have a lighthearted entry in the Kong canon.

Written by Takeshi Kimura
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B

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