Thursday, January 17, 2013
All-Out Giant Monster Attack! Episode 2 - The Son of Kong
Obviously in my journey throughout giant monster movies, there are going to be far more terrible movies to come than "The Son of Kong", including a few I'm already dreading to see. The original "Kong" was a really impressive work, and even I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. "The Son of Kong" is very very different, made by the same creative team and most of the original cast to milk as much money from the Kong license before it faded out of pop culture memory. Screenwriter Ruth Rose, one of the writers of the original, specifically thought that "King Kong" could not be topped, so instead decided to make something sillier and funnier. And also, RKO Pictures was giving a far smaller budget, so armatures and props had to be reused, sets had to be brought back, and technically complex scenes requiring many extras had to be trimmed out. That means very little New York, no huge parties of men running through the jungle, no massive crowds of Polynesians worshiping Kong... through there is a circus with an entire musical band made of real monkeys.
The plot has Carl Denham returning, again played by Robert Armstrong fleeing from New York in order to avoid numerous lawsuits and injunctions against him following his insanely irresponsible idea to unleash the world's largest monster onto Broadway. While traveling with the original captain and the original Chinese cook onboard the original ship, Carl Denham runs into a new leading lady, and the drunken sailor who told him about Skull Island, now with tales about lost gold. Back on Monster Island, Denham befriends Kong's albino son. Together they go on a few adventures, have a adorable little report, and then the island is hit by a huge earthquake and it sinks beneath the waves just as the film's budget runs out. "The Son of Kong" really shoots for cute, and in that respect, it mostly succeeds. If you want to see a movie about a man and the Little Kong he loves, "The Son of Kong" is it.
Its pretty obvious that "The Son of Kong" was made on the cheap, though this is mostly seen in the use of Hollywood sets, many of which are painfully stock such as the house Carl Denham is living in at the beginning of the movie. Its supposed to be in New York, yet it looks like any house anywhere in the world, and pretty obviously is a set that was used in probably thousands of movies in the Thirties. However, despite that, the monster special effects are still just as high quality as the ones from the original "King Kong". If anything, I think the use of rear projection (which I mistakenly called "blue screen" in the last episode) was more effective in "Son of Kong" then "King Kong". Rear projection was the technique where a previously filmed scene is shot onto the background or foreground of a scene currently being filmed. It was through this technique that live action actors would appear in the same shot as stop-motion animation. So stop-motion and live action were film separately, but ultimately interspliced together as if they existed together in one universe.
Unfortunately one problem with rear projection - and this is very apparent in "King Kong" - is that depth is completely incomprehensible. You cannot tell how close Fay Wray's hand is to King Kong as she reaches out in terror. There were some very complex shots made, and "King Kong" is still a technical marvel today, even as badly as the special effects have aged. For "The Son of Kong", they mostly avoided having Little Kong and the actors interacting directly. Carl Denham and the new brunette actress will be standing off to the left, and Little Kong will be off to the right, and this far more believable than actors standing directly in front of a rear-projected monster. I don't think the framing of these rear-projection shots was a conscious decision to make the movie better, it might have been a cost cutting measure to avoid very difficult editing, but it still makes the movie look noticeably better.
Willis O'Brien had far fewer shots to work with, but still manages to create a few believable fight scenes, including an exciting battle between Little Kong and a prehistoric monster bear. Fitting with this movie's lighter tone, Little Kong is a sillier creature than his father, with a funny little face. Kong himself was more or less a cartoon character, but Little Kong is simply adorable. He makes comic gestures to the camera, he wines when a thorn gets stuck in his paw, and if he wasn't twelve feet tall you'd think he'd give Carl Denham a big old hug. Which makes the ending of this movie all the sadder.
If there is a problem with "Son of Kong" its definitely the slow pace by which it takes for the main characters to return to Skull Island. There are about forty minutes of subplots and characters background information, not much of which turns out to be very important. Carl Denham's new love interest is this brunette, Hilde, whose father is drunkard former circus ringmaster and together they're trying to make a new show in the East Indies. To fill out time, we get to see their entire show, including a long musical number from Hilde. Her father is murdered by a fellow drunkard, who turns out to be the sailor from whom Carl Denham learned about Skull Island. And this sailor then leads a mutiny on board their ship, and then all of the characters get thrown overboard and onto Skull Island. The villain gets thrown in with the heroes as well, as the other sailors like him as little as their real captain. Then after forty minutes every returning character from "King Kong" and the two new ones finally can arrive at to meet Little Kong. What does all this interpersonal drama amount to? Little to nothing, the bad guy gets eaten and the main threat to the heroes is a curiously maneating triceratops.
Just when everything seems to be going the heroes' way, Skull Island is struck by the world's biggest earthquake, and the entire island sinks beneath the waves. Its a pretty sudden diabolus ex machina which unfortunately ends the tale of Little Kong on a horrible sad note. The humans escape but Little Kong dies saving Carl Denham from being drowned, lifting the man up as the water takes him. Poor little guy. This is considerably more sad since at least Father Kong killed a lot of people and was wrecking Manhattan. Little Kong never did anything wrong to anybody. He's probably one the nicest and cutest giant monsters in all of cinema history. What a shame.
I'd say "The Son of Kong" is not a cinematic masterpiece, more a historical curiosity for huge fans of giant monster movies. Its somewhat slow towards the beginning, and not much of consequence happens before Little Kong is murdered senselessly by natural misfortune. There might have been a better movie focused on Carl Denham's guilt on having led King Kong to his destruction against modernity, but that is a mild point, and the movie ends with the happy note of found treasure and a concluded romance. Its not a movie you can find very dissatisfying though because its such a lovely little thing.
And trust me, there are far worse King Kong cash-ins and rip-offs to come than this. I'm sure by the time we're watching "A*P*E" we'll look back upon "The Son of Kong" fondly.
Next time on All-Out Giant Monster Attack!: the spiritual successor to the Kong movies, the original "Mighty Joe Young".