One of Kong’s original directors returns… in the same bloody year. Oscar braves Skull Island’s sequel waters.
Who made it?: Ernest B. Schoedsack (Director/Producer), Ruth Rose (Writer), RKO Radio Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, Victor Wong.
Tagline: “Laughs! Thrills! Pathos!”
IMDb rating: 5.8/10.
This is one of those King Kong movies that not a lot of people have seen or even talk about, mainly because there isn’t really that much to talk about. It is a sequel to one of the most influential films of all time, and was made so quickly that it was released the same year as the original to capitalise on its success. I expected it to be terrible and incompetent, and surprisingly, that was not the case. It isn’t good either, but for a sequel made to cash in on its more famous predecessor, it could have gone a lot worse.
The story picks up about a month after the dramatic finale of the previous film and follows the further adventures of filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), now implicated in numerous lawsuits following the destruction wrought by Kong. Denham leaves New York City with Captain Englehorn to begin a new life of trading aboard the SS Venture. In the Dutch port of Dakang, Denham is amused to see there’s a “show” of performing monkeys being hosted, capped by a song performed by a young woman named Hilda Petersen (Helen Mack). But Helen’s father is accidentally killed by a Norwegian captain named Helstrom (John Marston) and a fire consumes the tent.
Denham befriends and cheers up Hilda but is unwilling to take her along on his trip to Skull Island, but Hilda stows away on the Venture. Denham and Englehorn run into Helstrom, the man who sold Carl the map to Kong’s island, and he convinces the two that there was a treasure to be found. The next day, a mutiny breaks out resulting in Denham, Englehorn, Hilda and Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) being marooned on Skull Island. There, Carl and Hilda meet and befriend an albino gorilla just over twice the height of a man. Denham assumes the ape to be Kong’s son and names him “Little Kong.”
Just as in the original film, the chemistry between Armstrong and Reicher is fun to watch; one of the strengths of the first was their inter-generational friendship (almost akin to a father and son relationship), which gives the film something for the audience to invest in. Mack really isn’t much of an actress, or singer for that matter, but she does fine opposite Armstrong and the romance between them is passable enough. Wong is intermittently funny as the sidekick on the expedition, too.
Max Steiner returns to provide the score for The Son of Kong, and while there are some decent homages to the original themes, and the new material is adequate for what it is, it isn’t the standout masterpiece of the previous score. But remember… this was the same year.
From a production standpoint, the rushed nature of the film is really quite evident; while the set work is fine if a little claustrophobic, the matte paintings really do look like paintings. The projection work is pretty wonky as well, and overall, the production doesn’t feel as tight as the previous film. It certainly doesn’t have the epic scope that King Kong had. I suppose there is a charm in the low-budget 1930s adventure serial feel to it. Oddly enough, Little Kong comes to Denham and Hilda’s rescue when Hilda screams and it is the exact same scream as Ann Darrow’s, and it did take me out of the moment.
The stop-motion animation is better than one might expect; Little Kong moves fluidly, and new dinosaurs, like the Styracosaurus and Nothosaurus, as well as a cave bear, are reasonably well-animated and are integrated well into the sets against human cast members. But again, it doesn’t match the fluidity and character of the first movie. The fight scenes have a lot of energy and ferocity, so for a short film it does make up for that with the creature encounters. A full-sized Kong hand puppet was built for the film, and used in tandem with the stop-motion. Little Kong is able to put forward a lot of expressions and is quite sympathetic for the most part. The comedic injections into Little Kong’s personality, with the cartoonish big eyes and childlike expressions, really don’t do anything for the film and almost seem self-parodying. Really, it’s going to be a matter of opinion whether you find Little Kong to be cute and charming or just a plain nuisance.
What I do like about this setup is how this team comprises of a band of outcasts and outlaws. We have a disgraced director wanted by the law, an elderly sea captain who is implicated in his friend’s actions, a washed up singer who can’t sing, a treacherous rival captain, and a ship’s cook – and no tough sailors to protect them! Not exactly prime candidates for a grand adventure into a lost world of giant animals and dinosaurs, and there’s something almost subversive about that; they aren’t heroes or even the most decent of people, but they still keep their heads in a dangerous situation. The friendship and eventual romance between Denham and Hilda is not as good as the romance between Ann and Jack, but it gets more bearable during the second half.
The biggest problem with the film is that it really does take too long to get to Skull Island, about 37 minutes to be precise. This results in a short second act and a rushed third act that ends very abruptly. In those initial 37 minutes, there are a lot of scenes that feel very filler-ish and don’t contribute to the story or sense of adventure. It’s only an hour and six minutes long, and that means proportionally it takes even longer to get to the island than both its predecessor and the 2005 remake. Also, it bears mentioning that the revelation of there being buried treasure on Skull Island is very contrived. It’s an okay motivation for Denham to go back, but it still comes out of nowhere.
What is the appeal of this film? Well, there is a bit of charm to it, and it is neat to see more of the island and its prehistoric inhabitants. For a carbon copy of the first film made on a miniscule production time and budget, it is quite fun, and the earthquake finale is a truly tense and impressive sequence, combined with Max Steiner’s score, resulting in a powerful but unfortunately rushed climax. For all the crap Denham has been through, it was kind of neat to see him again and have one last adventure there.
Being released nine months after the release of King Kong, any story potential there is in a sequel is lost. Despite being a brisk film, it does drag in certain places. It’s one thing to have a lighter and more comedic tone but it doesn’t really work considering that Kong Jr. still dies at the end along with the entire island ecosystem.
For a fairly obvious cash-in on the King Kong name, I don’t consider it the worst, mainly thanks to seeing Carl Denham back and showing remorse for his actions. I certainly think a lot more could have been done involving the island and its beasties, but the likable elements from the first film made it watchable for a little while. Not really worth checking out unless you’re massively into Kong lore. It just kinda exists.
The best I could find, anyway.
- The Little Kong puppet is actually the “long face” Kong model used for the T-Rex battle in King Kong (1933). For this film the armature (metal skeleton) was stripped of its rubber and fur and remodeled to look like a younger albino gorilla.
- Because they knew little about the stop-action process employed by Willis O’Brien on King Kong, producers Cooper and Schoedsack more or less left the animator alone. However on Son of Kong, they became involved, a situation that angered O’Brien. Rather than argue, O’Brien would seldom show up for work at the studio, and Buzz Gibson had to finish the animation without him. He asked Cooper to remove his name from the credits, but the producer refused.
Merian C. Cooper’s enthusiasm for this movie was curtailed when he was told he had less than half the budget of King Kong (1933) to work with, and he had to have it in theaters within six months, for Christmas 1933 release.
One of the scenes involving pterodactyls flying in the far background was matted into Citizen Kane (1941) during the scene where Kane and “friends” make for the beach from Xanadu – this was done to save production costs.