Toho, the legendary Japanese kaiju enthusiasts, take a second stab at King Kong, this time in an unlikely co-production with Rankin/Bass. Fortunately about the only thing the American animation studio brought to the table were the rights to use Kong's name.
Country: Japan | Runtime: 96mins | Director: Ishirô Honda
Starring: Rhodes Reason, Mie Huma, Linda Miller, Akira Takarada and Hideyo Amamoto
A mysterious unnamed nation employs evil scientist Dr Who (Amamoto) to devise a means of extracting the highly radioactive 'element X' from beneath the North Pole. Being a genius, Who realises that a 60-foot-tall mechanical ape is the answer. It immediately fails, however, so Who instead uses an unmanned mechanical digger designed specifically for mining in arctic temperatures. Who am I kidding? He kidnaps King Kong and hypnotises him.
It's funny to think of the fuss some modern blockbuster aficionados make over minor casting concessions shown to the Chinese market. Nowadays, an Asian actor cropping up somewhere in the middle of the cast list of a Transformers sequel is seen as compromising the integrity of a movie... about robots smashing each other confusingly in the face. This Toho production is brimming with Western actors because the studio wanted to reach the biggest audience possible, and Japanese audiences didn't complain. Of course it might also have something to do with King Kong Escapes being a co-production with Rankin/Bass, but that spoils my point.
Although the movie was made in Japan with a Japanese crew, it is considered an adaptation of Rankin/Bass's US cartoon series, The King Kong Show, which was a popular fixture of Saturday morning kids TV in the late 60s. The animation company's rights to use the character is what Toho were really interested in, particularly after an attempt to film a sequel to their King Kong vs Godzilla was abandoned due to 'complications' over their legal right to use the name (they didn't have any). Toho unleashed their big guns to ensure the movie was a success, assigning the director, producer, composer, production designer and lead effects artists that had made the original 1954 Godzilla a success, and a classic. The two films could hardly be more different. Godzilla was a brooding, allegorical menace in the 1954 original, while Kong is just silly.
"I don't see how you can be amused by gorillas, I think they're dull."
Of course the Japanese version may be more nuanced (not a sentence used too often these days), but there's no way to get around various inherent shortcomings. For one thing the geography is baffling. When Kong escapes the North Pole he swims to Tokyo in a couple of hours. That raises questions about how he could be trapped on a remote island. There are not many things as remote to Japan as the North Pole... though one of them appears to be convincing process shots. The matte lines which frequently surround Fay Wray substitute Susan Watson (Miller) appear to demonstrate the hitherto mysterious purpose of dark matter: it exists to make bad compositing look funny. Most of the time there isn't even an obvious reason why she needs to be composited in front of separately photographed backgrounds. A generic forest and a concrete expanse are just two locations that apparently couldn't be found in real life. Perhaps the Japanese version cuts her and the other American characters completely, the movie certainly wouldn't lose much. Apart from Watson they serve no purpose and bring nothing fun to the table. In terms of the acting it's all about Who and his enigmatic handler, Madame Piranha (Hama).
"The magnetic mass has destroyed his circuits!"
With both Madame Piranha (what a great name) and Susan Watson dubbed by the same actress, it does make you wonder if the Americans were an afterthought conceived and shot once principal photography had been completed. The voice artist responsible was Julie Bennett, whose most prominent role was Yogi Bear's girlfriend, Cindy. She does a great job of making Watson naff and Piranha hammy. But when there's no giant ape on screen, all attention is focused on Dr Who. He goes for the kill shot with every line reading, writhing and contorting his face like he's suffering a fatal series of muscle spasms. I have no idea why, but he makes me wish he'd played a villain opposite Burt Reynolds. The rest of the cast are insignificant compared to Piranha and Who, the pair's appeal only aided by the shifting nature of their relationship. First she has the upper hand, then him, and all the time they're each trying to usurp the other.
At the end of the day we watch these movies to see men in monster costumes smashing up models, and in that respect King Kong Escapes doesn't disappoint. Bearing in mind the title eschews the standard naming convention for Toho's head-to-head monster-mash movies, we're treated to a pleasant surprise with the climactic Kong vs Mechani-Kong throwdown. Few things in life can be more rewarding than watching a man in a robot Gorilla suit use the hypno-turret on his head to take out another man in a poorly fabricated Kong costume. And Kong's battle with a giant dinosaur (yep, they match every beat from the original 1933 movie) almost makes up for a distressing lack of Godzilla, who you can't help but expect will appear at some point... And speaking of the infamous atomic lizard, the man inside the Kong suit is no less than Haruo Nakajima, the actor who portrayed Godzilla more times than any other, including on his debut.
I know enough about Toho's movies to understand the different periods, but not enough to know whether they incorporate all their kaiju movies or just those featuring Godzilla. The first is the Showa period, and ran from 1954 to 1975, so King Kong Escapes falls into that era, if it’s eligible for any. After the first couple of earnest entries, the series descends rapidly into the sort of camp absurdity so prevalent here, so Kong is a good fit. Unfortunately those pesky character rights prevented any further Japanese outings, but along with the likes of Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla and the Shaw Bros' Infra-Man, this is one of the most entertainingly daft of these movies.