The villainous Dr Who (Eisei Amamoto), working on behalf of a rogue government, constructs a giant robotic King Kong to dig in the Arctic for the mysterious “element X”. When the robot Kong fails to operate due to the high radiation levels, Dr Who decides to kidnap the real Kong and force it to work under hypnosis. His plans are challenged by three members of a United Nations submarine crew, who travel from the South Pacific to the Arctic Circle and ultimately to Tokyo in the race to stop him.
King Kong Escapes, released in Japan and the USA in 1967, was a co-production between the two countries. In the USA it capitalised on the animation company Rankin/Bass’ popular KIng Kong television cartoon. In Japan, it worked as a follow-up to the enormously popular 1962 giant monster (or kaiju) feature King Kong vs Godzilla. The film itself was shot by Toho Studios in Japan by famed Godzilla director Ishiro Honda. Its English-language dub was supervised and directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. Presumably to tie into the current theatrical release of Kong: Skull Island, Universal Pictures have elected to re-release King Kong Escapes to bluray in its English-dubbed form. It is an unexpectedly entertaining little gem.
The production itself is a typical sort of Toho kaiju picture, replete with extensive model work and explosive giant monster fights. The quality of the visual effects varies enormously: the film will go some time with what seems like an endless stream of cheesy, unconvincing models and then suddenly a particular shot will leap off the screen as something particularly dramatic or realistic. Part of the film’s struggle in Kong himself: as performed by a human actor inside a furry suit, he has a somewhat goofy quality that is difficult to treat seriously. Robo-Kong suffers a similar problem. They are best taken in good humour, and do have an undeniable naive charm.
The acting is relatively broad on the part of its cast, including Rhodes Reason as Commander Carl Nelson, Akira Tarakada as Lt Commander Jiro Nomura, and a bright-faced Linda Miller as Lt Sue Watson. Mie Hama, then hot off the set of the James Bond picture You Only Live Twice, adds a seductive element of glamour to her role as rogue government paymaster Madame Piranha. The real highlight, however, is Eisei Amamoto as the urbane, arrogant mad scientist Dr Who. The film is a relatively silly slice of childrens’ entertainment, and he pitches his performance wonderfully for that audience.
It is interesting watching the film struggle to please two masters, with Nelson and Nomura seeming to take turns in being a protective male guardian of the young Lt Watson. There is a old-fashioned romantic air between both her and each of her male suitors, and by failing to match her up with one man over the other the film actually (and, I am relatively certain, inadvertently) makes her a little stronger.
It should be emphasised that this is, in most respects, a dreadful film. It looks cheap, the performances border on pantomime, and the story manages the outstanding feat of being both slight and nonsensical. For some reason, however, all of the elements put together actually work. It still seems terrible, but it is also oddly fun to watch.
The icing on the cake for an English language viewing experience is the dub. English language dubs of foreign films are always rather awkward and painful, but King Kong Escapes seems particularly egregious. It ultimately turns the film into a strange sort of self-parody: almost impossible to treat seriously, but weirdly entertaining at the same time. It is always welcome to see Hollywood’s major studios give even these lesser, semi-obscure films a proper high-definition release. King Kong Escapes is, by many standards, a fairly terrible film, but given the enthusiasm, the goofy represenation of its giant monsters, and its ridiculous dubbing, it emerges as a wonderful – and wonderfully silly – diversion.