Monday, March 11, 2013

Son of Kong (1933) (Movie Review)

     The best movie sequels are the ones that take their time to arrive, the ones that go through a deep thought process on how to either improve or at least live up to the high marks of the first. Unfortunately, most sequels are rushed productions, and usually come out within three or even two years of its predecessor. However, this isn’t a recent trend, as rushed sequels to popular films have been around sense the beginning. Today’s topic is one of the very first movie sequels to ever follow a landmark film, and it’s arguably the most rushed film project I’ve ever heard of. 1933 saw the premier of a motion picture classic known as “King Kong”, and it was within the same year of 1933 that its sequel premiered simply titled “Son of Kong”. This marks the only film in the franchise to directly tie-into the original classic, and subsequently it’s also the only film that doesn’t feature King Kong himself. As the title suggests, this film focuses on Kong’s son, whom the human characters refer to as Baby Kong. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but hey, maybe there’s some merit to this film. It obviously could never compete with a land mark event like the first “King Kong”, but in my view, it’s much better than a rushed sequel had any right to be.

    In the plus column, everything feels like a natural progression of the first movie. After Kong met his demise on the Empire State building, people begin suing the show owner responsible for bringing Kong to the city in the first place. Said person is naturally Carl Denham, who’s once again played by Robert Armstrong. While he’s losing money for all the property damage, he’s also trying to amend his broken soul, as the guilt of his failures is taking a toll. He reunites with the same Captain from the first movie, and the two try to make an honest living transporting cargo. The two cross paths with a shady sailor, one who was directly responsible for giving Carl Denham the map to Kong’s home Skull island in the first place. He claims that there’s also treasure on the island, which will help him get out of debt.

In truth, it’s really just a ruse to maroon Denham on the island and claim his ship. So, once again, we have an adventure on an island full of giant monsters, but this time with no way to sail back home. A young woman named Hilda is also marooned, as she was accusing the crocked sailor for murdering her father a day earlier. While trying to survive the dangers of the island, our heroes soon cross paths with Baby Kong, who’s injured and in a tough spot. Hoping to make amends for his past sins, Carl takes the role of a surrogate father, and helps nurse the big ape back to health. In return, Baby Kong leads them on the path to find the hidden treasure of the island and keep them safe from danger in the process.

       A great deal of care was put into the script, as the story is a natural progression, and the characters are developed further. However, the one thing that is not consistent with the original film is the tone. The first “King Kong” was a mix of adventure and horror, while “Son of Kong” by contrast mixes its adventure elements with comedy. Right from the start, this film has a very goofy tone, and isn’t trying to be taken seriously. The moment which firmly sets the films silly attitude is when our principle characters watch a traveling carnival act, and the main attraction is a stage performance focusing solely on real monkeys playing a variety of instruments. It’s one of those scenes that’s so dumb I actually find myself loving it. The characters likewise exchange funny quip-remarks, and its actually kind of charming in its own simple way. Baby Kong himself has a really cartoony personality, and comedic reactions. He’s notably smaller then Kong, which makes it easier for him to bond with our human leads.

    This is where the movie shines the most, by centering the attention on the principle characters, as opposed to the adventure. Robert Armstrong is the key ingredient that carries the whole film, and his performance as Carl Denham is honestly superior to the first film. I love seeing how much his character has grown and matured from before, while still maintaining a witty personality. Even the love interest Hilda isn’t so badly stereotyped as a damsel roped into an adventure. She doesn’t scream to the top of her lungs, keeps a level head, is smart enough to take care of herself and even the performance by Helen Mack is right on point. Even the supporting players are all kind of likable in their own unique ways.

    Of course, just like its predecessor, this film looks fantastic, with gorgeous map panted backgrounds, and more terrific looking stop-motion creatures. This time around, we get to see new dinosaurs that weren’t featured in the original, and there’s still such a charm to these old stop-motion creatures that just can’t be replicated in our modern films. Some of the newer monsters in this film include a sea serpent, and a giant cave bear who clashes with Baby Kong in the most memorable monster battle of the film. This is where the rushed production of the film rears its head, because even by clay-motion effects standards, there’s something slightly off about these creature effects. They lack the same excitement and wonder that made the monsters in the previous film so spectacular to behold. There’s a scene when Kong fights another serpent-like creature, and while it’s still very appealing to watch, there’s just something that feels lacking.

      In the plus column, this movie explores more of the island, including ancient temple ruins, and buried treasure chambers. The simple imagery of giant statues and abandoned temples give the film it’s flavor of adventure. Now spoiler warning, but I must comment on the ending. After our heroes find the secret treasure, a storm suddenly hits the island, and it’s apparently one of those rare wrath of God storms, as it’s literally sinking the island into the ocean. With everything crumbling around them, the team make a desperate attempt to escape on a boat before they all get pulled under. In the end, Baby Kong sacrifices his life to save Carl Denham from drowning. So, once again we have a tragic monster death, but far more valiant then his father’s demise. Typically, in an old monster movie of this sort, the film would stop as soon as the monster dies, but in a nice twist, the film plays out a little longer, and our two heroes contemplate weather or not Baby Kong was acting through animal instinct, or if he really knew if he was giving his life to save his new father figure. It’s a nice little cap to the film, and closes things on a positive note.

    In the end, “Son of Kong” is no masterpiece, and is admittedly a forgettable experience, but the creators behind this film really tried to make this special, and it almost worked. It’s a far better sequel then it had any right to be, and it’s consistently entertaining to watch. Even without the monsters, the characters are still charming enough to hold my attention, and there’s a certain old-school charm that makes it appealing. If you’re a fan of cheesy, yet classy old monster movies, then give this one a single viewing. It’s no “King Kong”, but it’s an enjoyable little diversion all the same.                     

I give the 1933 sequel “Son of Kong” 2 ½ stars out of 5. 

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