King Kong vs. Doctor Who?!
Friend and colleague Allison Pregler guest hosts the first of two new episodes of “Deja View.”
Deja View is a Telly Award-winning series that explores foreign remakes of popular American films.
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A giant ape is taken to civilization against his will and sets off on a rampage, kidnapping a beautiful girl and climbing to the top of the city’s tallest building. And then, as you might remember, he battles a giant robot doppelgänger piloted by Dr. Who.
I’m getting an enormous feeling of Deja View.
In the Japanese film “King Kong Escapes,” a trio of UN scientists discover the friendly Kong on his tropical island home. But a certain criminal mastermind has diabolical plans for the big ape:
Carl Nelson: “…that international Judas, Dr. Who.”
No relation to the time-traveling BBC character unfortunately, this Dr. Who kidnaps King Kong, creates a robot clone, and exploits them both to mine a rare radioactive element.
“King Kong Escapes” is no fly-by-night rip-off. It was produced in 1967 by “Godzilla” studio Toho, which had five years previously produced “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”
Following that film’s success, King Kong rights holder RKO allowed Toho to produce another Kong film. This time Toho’s pitch was to pit the big ape against future Godzilla foe Ebirah, a giant shrimp-like sea monster. Unimpressed, however, RKO rejected the script.
Instead, they mandated that Toho co-produce the film with American studio Rankin/Bass, who was currently featuring the mondo-sized monkey in their popular Saturday morning cartoon. And in fact, they already had a screenplay in hand based on the show.
In adapting the cartoon for the big screen, Kong’s human friends were replaced with new protagonists, the UN scientists. The villainous Dr. Who, however, was taken directly from the show, although his appearance was altered from the stereotypical mad scientist with a big brain, spectacles, and lab smock to a flamboyant, skeletal super villain. And while one might well imagine that the robot Mechani-Kong was the creation of the same industry behind Mechagodzilla and countless other giant super robots, it too comes directly from the American cartoon.
Interestingly, Kong himself is brought to life not through stop motion animation as in the original film, but rather the faster and cheaper alternative “suitmation,” an actor in a monster suit. Devised for the original “Godzilla,” suitmation quickly became the hallmark of Japanese “kaiju” — or “monster” — films. While the Kong suit here is certainly more cartoonish than its latex-and-rubber miniature predecessor, that’s probably due more to the aesthetics of contemporary kaiju films, the younger demographic, and the animated source material than a limitation of the process itself. In fact the 1976 Hollywood remake of “King Kong” employed almost exclusively suitmation with often astonishing results.
Although technically not a sequel to Hollywood’s original “King Kong,” the numerous homages are unmistakable. Kong battles Gorosaurus in a sequence virtually duplicating the original’s memorable T-Rex fight. Later, hero Carl Nelson muses about the possibility of bringing Kong to America. And of course, it wouldn’t be a King Kong movie without the eponymous ape climbing a major landmark — in this case Tokyo Tower.
Also, since the film was an American co-production, US actors Rhodes Reason and Linda Miller were added to the cast to appeal to Western audiences.
It’s difficult to assign a single genre to “King Kong Escapes.” On the one hand, it has all the hallmarks of a kaiju film, with two giant beasts wreaking havoc in the heart of Tokyo. On the other, it adds to the mix elements of science fiction, adventure, and even James Bond spy films. It’s a formula that Toho used successfully in such films as “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster,” but here the resulting tone often feels uneven.
Yet as gloriously mad as it is, “King Kong Escapes” is a thoroughbred descendant of the “King Kong” movie legacy with all the proper provenance. It may be a little out there for purists, but if you’ve got a monkey on your back for all things Kong, it’s absolutely essential.
For the English dub of the film, star Rhodes Reason was the only one to perform his own voice. All the other male voices were done by the prolific Paul Frees, better known as Boris Badenov on “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.” Proud of his abilities, he reportedly told Reason “I don’t even know why you’re here. […] I can probably do you better than you can do you.”
Presumably he didn’t say that to Kong.
Thanks so much for watching, and we’ll see you next time.