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Of the films in what I like to call the Great Ape Trilogy ("King Kong,"
"The Son of Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young"), this is my pet favorite. I
loved "The Son of Kong" as a kid but hadn't seen it in years until I
rented it recently from my local public library. Was it as good as I
remembered? No -- it was even better!
This movie generally gets a bad rap, and I admit that some of the
criticisms are valid: It was rushed, it can't compete with "King Kong"
in terms of spectacle or horror, it's a light dessert after a steak
dinner. Because it's a sequel, it is fair to compare it to the
original, and in some respects the comparisons are unfavorable. It's
not exactly "Bride of Frankenstein" or "The Godfather Part II." But
it's a wonderful film in its own right.
The best thing about "The Son of Kong" is that it makes perfect sense.
Carl Denham (played, as in the original, by Robert Armstrong) is being
sued by practically everyone in New York for the death and destruction
caused by King Kong. That's exactly what would happen, not just in
1933, but especially today, which gives this old movie an unexpected
freshness. Also, because of severe budgetary and time restrictions, the
filmmakers knew they couldn't make another spectacle, so they wisely
went in the other direction. The result is a smaller and far more
lighthearted film whose titular character is a charming innocent who
acts exactly the way a young ape would act. He's curious, he's playful
and he's friendly, but he's also suitably ferocious when attacked or
when protecting his human friends, as a watchdog pup would be.
There's also a sweetness and compassion about this film, not only in
the kindly attitude toward animals, Little Kong in particular, but in
the relationship between the remorseful Denham and the lonely Hilda,
touchingly played by Helen Mack, a beautiful and underrated actress who
gives what I think is the best performance in the picture.
"The Son of Kong" is wonderfully atmospheric, mainly in the scenes on
Skull Island but also in those in Dakang and aboard the Venture.
Considering they were so rushed to finish the film, the animators and
technicians did a superb job, especially the great Willis O'Brien, who
reportedly didn't like the final product. That's too bad, because he
did some of his best work on this movie, as evidenced by Little Kong's
alternately thrilling and amusing fight with a giant cave bear, by the
cataclysmic storm and earthquake that rock the island, and by some of
the small touches that set O'Brien apart from everyone else in his
field. Kudos also go to Max Steiner, whose musical score is almost as
good as it was in "King Kong."
Then there's the humor, which is delightful, contrasting nicely with
the darker and sadder aspects of the film. It's provided primarily by
Mickey the process server (played impishly by Lee Kohlmar) and, of
course, by Little Kong himself. Yes, it's slightly overdone a couple of
times, as when Little Kong scratches his head and anthropomorphically
shrugs in a display of confusion, but overall it's a welcome and
In addition to Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack, the actors play their
parts well. Frank Reicher (returning as Capt. Englehorn), Victor Wong
(back in an expanded role as Charlie the cook, whom he plays with
dignity and a certain twinkle), John Marston (marvelously slimy as the
villainous Helstrom) and Ed Brady (as a surly mutineer) round out a
Ruth Rose's script is witty, gritty and realistic. It has been
criticized for borrowing, clichés and all, from plenty of timeworn
tales, but I don't care. For me, it works. And the finale can mist the
eyes of even the strongest man.
All in all, "The Son of Kong" is a terrific, if brief (only an hour and
10 minutes), adventure. It's also a love story, as well as a tale of
heroic sacrifice and ultimate redemption. I'm happy to say that one of
my favorite childhood movies is now one of my favorite adulthood films,
too. Here's looking at you, kid.
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