by David Cornelius
I had remembered liking “Son of Kong” when I first saw it years ago, despite the general opinion that it was vastly inferior to the original “King Kong.” No, it didn’t match the 1933 classic, but in its own way, it was a misunderstood, forgotten gem. When I revisited the film recently, however, I started to realize that the film I recalled to be a fun, inventive sequel was actually a fairly crappy number that would only appeal to the most hardcore fans of early monster movies.“Son of Kong” begins one month after the original ends. Carl Denham, the promoter who brought the big guy to New York, is being hounded by every government agency and local business for damages brought on by Kong’s escape and death (an idea recycled for “Ghostbusters II,” of all movies). With the help of an old friend, he escapes the city by ship and is soon searching for work in the South Seas. A few adventurous episodes later, he finds himself back on Skull Island, where he discovers a giant albino ape that he figures may be Kong’s son.
"For die-hard monster movie buffs only."
I’ll start with the things I remembered liking about the film, which mostly held up on this repeat viewing. First, the opening of the picture, with Denham hiding out from creditors, lawyers, and the like, is a lot of fun. There’s a silliness to this clever angle - it’s a fresh twist for what could have been a carbon copy sequel - and Robert Armstrong (as Denham) is a lot of fun here.
Second, and most importantly, Baby Kong is an even more sympathetic character than his dad. From the very first glimpse of the little guy, we’re never made to be frightened; there’s a “Zoo Babies” feel to him that’s a bit cute. He becomes a friend to Denham, helping him out through one circumstance after another - including an emotional climax that, sadly, isn’t nearly as touching as I remembered.
And now for the bad. I’ll start with that emotional climax. Not to give anything away, but the entire ending of the picture comes on too quickly with no real explanation, which leaves one scratching his head more than he should. It’s as if the writers had a big ending in mind, but couldn’t figure out how to connect it to the rest of the movie. It’s well-filmed, with decent special effects, but it makes no sense at all in the story.
Then there’s the overabundance of offensive characters. You know those ooga-booga tribesfolk from the first film? They’re back, and they’re ready to insult. We also have a load of “natives” in one island port, none of whom are made out to have any intelligence. Then there’s Charlie, a Chinese servant to Denham who’s one of those “friendly idiots.” Every time he appears, I had to cringe. Yes, “things were different then” can be given as an excuse, and I’ve managed to accept such stereotypes in my oldies, but it’s still pretty hard to take.
And as fun as Armstrong is in the early scenes, he quickly becomes irritating as the film progresses. His performance in later scenes (especially those with Baby Kong) have that 1930s overacting feel, and his character is forced to get a little too bossy. His repeated bashing of the little guy in a few scenes makes me feel a little sorry for the ape.
As for the special effects, they’re simply not up to the standards of the first film. While Kong Jr. looks pretty good, some of his jungle adversaries look too rushed and poorly constructed. One giant lizard thingy looks downright silly, like something out of Gumby, and I was startled to see such sloppy work. (It should be noted that the film was rushed into production following the success of “King Kong,” so much so that the time-consuming stop-motion animation was hurried through in order to reach the premiere date - December 22, 1933, less than ten months after its predecessor’s debut.)
My biggest complaint has to be the limited time actually spent with the title character. We don’t even get to Skull Island until the final half hour - a major problem since the movie’s only 70 minutes long. Most of the film is one big tease, and when we finally do get to meet the little guy, he’s not given much to do. There’s one rousing fight with a giant bear that’s pretty good stuff (although Armstrong and female lead Helen Mack barely react to this battle). The rest of Baby Kong’s actions sadly consist of following Denham around for a while. That’s it. The film does little to showcase the star of the picture, unlike his dad, who got to terrorize an entire city.All in all, “Son of Kong” is worth seeing if you’re interested in the movies of the early 1930s, or if you get a kick out of monster movies and want to see how RKO pulled off a quickie sequel. But it’s easy to understand just why this film disappeared into obscurity, a mere footnote in the legend of the classic “King Kong.” For all it could have been, “Son of Kong” remains a failed effort to recapture the magic of the original.
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originally posted: 11/22/05 11:11:06