Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of his upcoming title fight against Godzilla, we’re looking back on the most significant starring vehicles for the Eighth Wonder Of The World, the giant ape to rule them all, King Kong.
The King Kong musical that hit Broadway in 2018 was a bona fide event, fitting the gargantuan spectacle of the headlining ape onto the stage to retell the story of how his captors fit the gargantuan spectacle of the headlining ape onto the stage. The meta-humor built into the concept wasn’t fully developed, reviews were tepid, and it closed after less than one year. But for most people, it’s still the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the phrase “King Kong musical.” The Mighty Kong (1998) doesn’t have quite the same profile, which almost seems to be by design; it knowingly scales itself down, turning a thunderous Hollywood myth into a humbler and lighter version of itself catering to a different demographic.
The sole feature from the barely existent Lana Productions, animated on the cheap in South Korea and shuffled off to a DTV release, this little-seen oddity can’t help but feel like the outlier of the Kong canon. Although it may be a minor work, its pleasures are simple and functional, serving to translate the narrative and thrills of the 1933 original for a generation of cartoon-watchers reared on Animaniacs. Television veteran William J. Keenan accentuated the showbiz aspect with his script, spending more time in New York’s theater district during the expanded first act and lacing the expedition to Skull Island with humor about the manifold hassles of moviemaking. Born showman Carl Denham (voiced by British great Dudley Moore in his final role prior to his death in 2002) has a bigger role to play than pouty-lipped adventurer and romantic lead Jack Driscoll (Randy Hamilton, in his final role as well—has anyone looked into the possibility of a behind-the-scenes tontine?) as they apprehend the Great White Way’s next blockbusting sensation. In tow, they’ve got Denham’s leading-lady discovery Ann Darrow (Jodi Benson, Princess Ariel herself) and a perma-frazzled AD named Roscoe (Hal Hartley favorite Bill Sage) providing comic relief through inside-baseball industry jokes.
The journey follows in the same tree-trunk-sized footprints as the ’30s version, without any meaningful alterations to that tried-and-true plot. (Some shots of Kong straddling the Empire State are re-created exactly, and ’twas still beauty that killed the beast.) The real stars of the show are Robert and Richard Sherman, composers of the half-dozen bouncy songs setting this fluffier take on the material apart from its towering predecessors. The minds behind everything from Mary Poppins to The Jungle Book to “It’s A Small World After All” imbue numbers like zippy Tinseltown sendup “Queen Of Lotusland” and the theme for Denham’s “Wild Animal Follies” with a Golden Age shine. Their polish and professionalism does a lot to bolster the overall legitimacy of a shoestring operation clearly working with a modest budget.
Those devotees that have already memorized the dalliance between Fay Wray and her era’s tallest, furriest leading man may wonder what use this doodled copy could have. To be pragmatic about it, the bright Saturday-morning color palette and catchy ditties can lure in youngsters that balk at black-and-white movies. Once they’re on board, perhaps it’ll be easier to sell them on the genuine article, and from there, it’s on to Lumière shorts and Steamboat Bill, Jr. and other fantasies of the cinephile parent. If not, it’s still a fleet, reverent kid-ification of a classic with a fistful of toe-tappers to its unique credit, leagues ahead of most lower-tier non-studio animation. Too much G-rated entertainment contents itself with setting a low bar for an undiscerning viewership and narrowly clearing it. Even the child-friendly Kong can crush that bar with his big toe.