Friday, January 13, 2017

THROWBACK REVIEW: King Kong VS Godzilla (1962)

The popularity of King Kong after 1933 was apparent. It was an instant box office success, turning up a hefty profit and a bad sequel. Despite the minor setback, King Kong proved he was still on top for years. He saw his first theatrical re-release in 1938, though it would have certain parts censored as certain shots of the original film we're no longer appropriate at the time(mainly shots of Kong biting and attacking people, and removing parts of Ann's dress). Kong would also see theatrical re-releases during 1942, and 1946. Yet despite this success, he was not yet much of a pop culture icon. It wasn't until his theatrical re-release in 1952, that his rise to stardom would be apparent, and that his influence would finally start to be seen in film and culture. It was easily the most successful re-release of his time, and don't think I need to explain how or why. But for those who are in need of a refresh, let's talk about what happened after his global theatrical re-release in 1952.

King Kong's 1952 global showing would be a worldwide phenomenon, getting named "Movie of the Year" by Time Magazine. But one place Kong would find enormous popularity in would be Japan. Many people, who would work on a very iconic Japanese film would draw influence from King Kong. They were in such awe from the film that they wanted to shoot their film like just like that film. Unfortunetaly as they were pressed for time, they could not. But the resulting film they created would explode around the world, and this film of course, was Gojira. Otherwise known as Godzilla. Godzilla would quickly rise in popularity, and with his rise to stardom apparent, and with Kong's popularity still up there, someone around the world asked a question. If King Kong met Godzilla...what would happen?

Well, thanks to an unused idea from Willis O'Brien (in which King Kong would meet and fight a giant version of Frankenstein's Monster), and the people over at Toho (many of whom wanted very much to shoot a King Kong movie), we got an answer in a film that to date, remains the biggest box office hit featuring Godzilla. A film that not only featured two very popular monsters, but helped launch the Godzilla franchise to even higher stages of popularity. We got the film, King Kong VS Godzilla. A film with such a legacy behind it, that to present day, fans of both franchises continue to debate the fight, and who was meant to be the true winner. There are many urban legends surrounding this film, many which say that there's a Japanese cut where Godzilla wins and other similar myths, but let the record show that this is untrue. It may not stop the debates but...spoiler alert, King Kong wins. It's really that simple. Japan themselves advertised the film as Kong being the winner. Why? Because he was the more popular monster at the time, and at this time, Godzilla wasn't really quite in his hero stages yet. Hell, even the movie reminds you that Kong is just an animal, but Godzilla is a "monster" born from radiation. There's absolutely no purpose to this line other than to remind the viewer that Kong is the good guy, and Godzilla is the bad guy. So...there. Accept it. Godzilla lost to the giant ape. With all this said, how's the actual movie?

Well watching it again (and to those wondering, I watched the original Japanese cut), I really wasn't expecting much, but for a while, I was very much pleasantly surprised with the film. It is very fun. Sure the plot kinda disintegrates towards the end, but you can tell there was a lot of effort thrown into this film to get King Kong just right. I'm not sure they got everything right, but you can tell there was a lot of effort from Japan here, not only to do justice to Kong, but to make him a match for Godzilla, and to keep the spirit of the monster present within the film. They're very hit or miss with this unfortunetaly. One thing I didn't really care for was the Kong suit. While I understand that they were on a budget, you can tell that it's very much obviously a suit. The teeth don't always line up, the mouth can hang open, but one thing I hated was the arms. There were times the arms looked disjointed or out of place. I think the guy wearing the suit was holding arm extensions at times because the arms at times take an unnatural bend towards the elbow area. Like something getting pulled down by gravity. I also never liked how the fists never closed whenever Kong beat on his chest. Surely this could have been fixed guys. It's just not as threatening or intimidating as it normally is. My final criticism to Kong in this movie is that while we get plenty of hints to why Kong has the power that he does in this movie, it's never explained. I want someone to tell me exactly why electricity helps Kong fight better. The movie doesn't explain. It just kinda shows Kong munching on power lines and getting revived by lightning (lightning that doesn't strike anywhere close to him).  But regardless of my criticisms, you can definitely tell that again, they did put a lot of effort into his behavior and actions. From him finding a certain woman attractive, to him defending island natives who revere him as a god, Japan really did do their homework for keeping the spirit of Kong alive in this movie. Is it the same Kong we're used to? No. But it does the monster justice. It almost makes me ashamed of our Godzilla 1998 movie just a bit more.

Speaking of Godzilla, his suit is about as convincing as Kong's honestly. I could be mistaken, but I feel that this suit they used is much different than what they used before. It seems...lighter. Which honestly, I think kinda hurts this film a bit because there are times you can most definitely tell that it is a suit. The rubber can bend in places it shouldn't bend, the face, like Kong's, just isn't that convincing, it just could have been polished up a bit more. One thing I actually had to chuckle at was that there are times in the movie that Godzilla flails his arms at times, and you can hear the rubber hitting. You'd think something like that would get cleaned out in editing. And it's not just in one point of the movie. It happens numerous times. I also am a bit lost to the special effects of this film. Particularly that around Godzilla's breath. It's not nearly as bad as Godzilla VS The Sea Monster, but I do think they could have made it slightly more convincing than a slightly blue mist.

From monsters to story, does it hold up? Well right off the bat, I can say that the story was fun to follow while it lasted. It's not the greatest story ever told and it's not exactly told the best, but it does have a lot of charm. The only real weakness it has, is that once the monsters start fighting, the story is practically dropped. All human characters are reduced to literally nothing but spectators as both King Kong and Godzilla fight. This isn't an exaggeration. Despite some fun aspects in this story, about halfway through the film, the characters do nothing but watch the monsters from afar, or argue over who's the stronger monster. You real life Godzilla fans. And once the fighting is over, they literally just shoe-horn in a message about treating earth and nature better, despite that not once in the film is the treatment of the environment ever mentioned. I find this lazy, even for early Godzilla. 

This is a bit of a shame because I was actually quite interested in the characters of this film. While the film has its fair share of characters that are forgettable, I forgot how much of a riot the head of the pharmaceutical company was. I'm not sure I follow his plan with Kong, mainly because of his dialogue. At first he's looking to boost his ratings for this science tv show he has, then he's pretty much announcing Kong as a brand sponser, it's a very confusing plot, but you don't care because of how funny this guy can be. You can easily detect that this movie was going for a much more light-hearted feel. It's goofy and silly, but in all the right ways. Other characters really aren't so essential, like one of the sister characters that Kong finds attractive. This girl serves no purpose for the film other than to be the token damsel in distress. She struggles clumsily across a river fleeing from Godzilla, she is captured by Kong to try and pay homage to the climax of the original movie, but seeing how beauty doesn't kill the beast here, and seeing how she's nowhere near as memorable as scream queen Ann Fray, the scene kinda feels unnecessary to me. There's also the fact that the size of the woman in the hand of Kong just isn't accurate. With the size of Kong, she'd be a lot smaller than that doll we see. And yes, you can obviously tell that Kong is holding what is likely a barbie doll. Gotta love budgets. And thanks to the fact that there's likely a 200 pound actor in that gorilla suit, Kong just kinda stands on what amounts to a common courthouse, rather than scaling a tall skyscraper. Just not that exciting.

I think my final criticism of the movie goes to the unfortunate aspect of time. This movie really hasn't aged well. At all. I normally don't criticize movies based on age, but I think I have a bit of a right to with this one, because this film is infamous for how poorly preserved it is. In 1970, director Ishiro Honda prepared an edited version of this film for a film festival, but made a terrible mistake of making actual edits to the films original negative. As a result, a lot of the footage was lost, as was some of the highest quality shooting. I'm willing to bet none of us have seen the original theatrical release of this film. You can tell there are problems in the editing of this film. There were times the frame jumped for a quick second, or there were times that I felt certain frames were just straight up missing. Ishiro really should have done a better job preserving this film.  It also needs to be said that other effects just aren't so convincing. Kong's blinking eyes, scenes involving obvious blue screens, obvious reused shots, you can really tell this film has not aged well at all.

But that's literally all I can really say as far as criticism is concerned. Some flat characters, a plot that kinda falls apart at the end, and effects that don't hold up nowadays. Everything else is just way too fun. I loved how Kong got his own Tokyo rampage scene. And they made it rather unique, too! Where Godzilla or literally any other monster in Toho's lineup will just kinda slowly walk through the city in question, slowly raining down destruction and whatnot like a giant lumbering tank, King Kong when he enters Tokyo, straight up RUNS through it. It's a nice little break from the mold that I really liked. I also loved how at one particular point, he just straight up punched one of the buildings down. He picks up trains like Godzilla, he scales the small model town buildings, it's all fun to watch, even if the homage to the original climax again, does fall a bit flat. I know I've said it already, but you can definitely tell that Toho was looking to get the character of Kong dead on. And the fights with Godzilla? They're fun, entertaining, and cheesy hilarious. Yeah due to the effects, I'm getting similar feelings that I'd get watching Arena from Star Trek, but I can look past that. You can tell that these fights are meant to be slightly comedic, while maintaining their intense fighting atmosphere. It's a wonderful treat to behold.

And one thing I'm gonna shower this film with praise on is Akira Ifukube's music score. This is the film that would help define some of the most iconic music in the Godzilla films for years to come. While we don't hear the iconic theme from 1954 here, you do hear a very iconic piece that would soon become part of that iconic theme. I think every fan kinda knows that piece I'm talking about. And if that's not enough, Kong's theme is absolutely haunting. From the time you press play on the movie, you're treated to this absolutely incredible theme, which though simple, shows the intimidation, the mystery, the all around atmosphere of the King Kong character. The sounds of the choir chanting over those strings, tribal drums, timpani, while the winds and brass give powerful blasts in the background is one of the coolest pieces of music of the entire Godzilla franchise. Incredible job from Akira for putting this score together.

If you put everything together, King Kong VS Godzilla remains a bit of a fan favorite, and one of the biggest films of the Godzilla franchise for a reason. It's by no means the best, but for me personally, despite its flaws, it's certainly up there. Even the American version is rather enjoyable. Aside from dubbing difference, the American version did add their own particular touch to the film. They added scenes of people talking on the news comparing the two monsters, how Godzilla is brute force, and how Kong is more of a thinking animal, and how they used footage from a film called "The Mysterians", to help enhance the earthquake at the very end of the film. They also rechanged sequences, and unfortunetaly almost completely replaced the Ifukube score with music from films such as "Creature from the Black Lagoon", "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman", among many many many other films, but regardless of it, you can tell that they too were interested in presenting this film as best they could for their respective audiences. And it's fun to compare the two versions.

I'm giving King Kong VS Godzilla a solid rating of three stars out of four. While I wish I could have given it a higher rating, it is held back by the problems I've talked about. But for King Kong fans and Godzilla fans alike, you should already know that it's not any statement to say you shouldn't watch this, because the opposite couldn't be more true. This really is one of those pinnacle essential monster films to go and see. It likely helped boost King Kong's popularity higher than it already was, and for Godzilla? I need to say? The big guy's legacy has long since been sealed, and it likely owes a lot of that success to this movie alone. It remains the biggest box office hit of the franchise, and in all of Toho's 29 Godzilla films, it is the biggest hit it has to date. And with a remake finally heading our way in three short years?  You can bet that there's no one more anxious, more willing, more excited to see how they will make this already fun movie, into something even more fun. It is about damn time...

Please feel free to request any film you'd like to see me take a look at. Leave a comment explaining your own thoughts and opinions of the film, as they are all appreciated, and as always, thanks for reading.

King Kong's tenure in Japan didn't end with his victorious battle over Godzilla. Join me next week when Toho partners with American film company Rankin/Bass, in which Kong takes on a mechanical menace. See you next week when I analyze the film, "King Kong Escapes"! See you then!

Final Verdict: 3/4

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