King Kong is one of the most famous movie monsters of all-time. The tale of a colossal gorilla taken from a remote jungle island to wreak havoc in a major city has become an iconic — and familiar — story that captures the imagination of moviegoers young and old, and has done so for more than 80 years. Debuting in 1933’s “King Kong,” the colossal ape has been featured in TV shows, comic books, toys, video games, novels, and even a stage musical. But where he shines best is the same place he began, towering above audiences on the big screen.
King Kong has starred in nine feature films to date, and they range in both quality and tone. Some have been tense and dramatic, while others have opted for camp and goofiness — he is a giant ape, after all. Some use state-of-the-art special effects, while others… offer some of the worst special effects you might ever be forced to watch With the character headed back to the big screen in Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Kong: Skull Island” in 2017, we dived into the archives to rank Kong’s movie adventures from worst to best.
10. The Mighty Kong (1998)
“Mighty Kong” is an animated musical based on the 1933 original movie. It was released straight-to-video, which should tell you everything you need to know about why it ranks so low on this list. Even the movie’s distributors didn’t think it was worth putting on the big screen. The movie is directed by Art Scott, and featured a strong cast including Jodi Benson (the voice of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”) and Dudley Moore, but that’s about all it has going for it.
The movie follows the story of the original for the most part. Benson plays Ann Darrow, an actress seeking work. She stumbles into director Carl Denham (Moore), who’s going to be filming a new movie on a remote island. He gives her a role in the movie, and they journey to the island to find the mighty Kong himself. Kong is captured and taken to New York, where he escapes, goes on a rampage, and climbs the Empire State Building in the climax. Pretty much what you’ve come to expect.
The big difference is the whole story is made kid-friendly. The natives very kindly ask to sacrifice Darrow to Kong, instead of kidnapping her as in nearly every other version. There’s a plucky cabin boy, and a goofy regular-sized monkey for the kids to laugh at. Even the final fall of Kong from the skyscraper is changed from the usual tragic ending to a more upbeat one. That’s right, he doesn’t die. The military manages to string a net between two blimps to catch Kong on the way down. As if that didn’t make the film overly sanitary, there are some forgettable song and dance numbers tossed in for good measure.
The movie was released by Warner Home Video and Warner Bros. Family Entertainment for the 75th anniversary of Warner Bros. Studios, and it doesn’t seem like they had high ambitions for it. It’s truly the worst Kong adaptation of all. It’s notable for being the last credit before Moore’s death in 2002, but it’s definitely not the movie we’ll remember him for.
9. Queen Kong (1976)
This British film is more of a parody of “King Kong” than a serious contender for best Kong movie, but it is worth noting for its gender reversal of the story. Instead of a giant male ape after a beautiful young woman, Queen Kong is about a giant female ape after a handsome young man.
Directed by Frank Agrama and starring Robin Askwith, Rula Lenska and Linda Hayden, the whole movie comes across as a rabid satire of feminist ideas. Rula Lenska plays the devious film producer who kidnaps male actor Ray Fay (a not very subtle nod to original “King Kong” star Fay Wray) to star in her movie. She and her crew board the Liberated Lady (again, very subtle) to go to Africa to shoot their film. There they find the giant ape, Queen Kong. How do we know she’s a female? The gorilla suit has breasts. From there, Queen Kong is carried to London, where she escapes and rampages at the top of Big Ben. Instead of a climactic battle, Ray Fay grabs a microphone to deliver a long speech about female subjugation — and hatred of all men.
The whole feminist angle is patronizing and offensive to modern audiences, so the “humor” fails miserably. While every film is best viewed in its original context, there’s little that works well enough here to make it worth the effort. Add the fact that the ape suit and special effects in general are on the level of a TV movie, and a bad one at that and this one lands right where it deserves, almost at the bottom of the heap. The movie only had a limited release in Italy and Germany, because Dino De Laurentiis (the then copyright holder) sued the production when they tried to release it elsewhere. It’s probably just as well.
8. King Kong Lives (1986)
When producer Dino De Laurentiis tried to make a sequel to his 1976 “King Kong” remake (which we’ll get to shortly), the result was “King Kong Lives.” This movie stumbles with the premise: Kong didn’t die from falling off the Twin Towers. Instead, he just got hurt really, really bad.
Directed by John Guillermin and starring Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton and Peter Elliott, the film picks up a month after the original story. Kong was taken from the streets of New York to a hospital. A scientist played by Linda Hamilton wants to save him by giving him an artificial heart, but they need a blood donor. Of course, there isn’t a blood bank for giant gorillas lying around, so there seems to be no hope for Kong. Enter Lady Kong, a newly discovered female of his species. From there, the movie turns into a simian Romeo and Juliet with the two apes falling in love, running away while being chased by the military, and having a child.
The movie was a flop, both financially and critically. There are huge plot holes, not the least of which is Lady Kong going from insemination to giving birth within three days. The low budget didn’t help with bad ape suits, cheesy dialogue, and a climax set in a barn instead of a skyscraper. When one of your big moments is a love scene between two gorillas, that’s probably a good sign you’re headed in the wrong direction. “Lives” is widely considered one of the worst Kong movies.
7. King Kong Escapes (1967)
Directed by Ishiro Honda and starring Rhodes Reason, Mie Hama and Linda Miller, this Japanese movie is actually a sequel to the first Japanese Kong movie licensed by Toho, “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” It marks the last time a Japanese production was legally allowed to play with the iconic gorilla, and they pulled out all the stops to do it.
In “Escapes,” an evil scientist named Dr. Who (no relation to the BBC’s Time Lord) creates a mechanical giant gorilla to dig for a radioactive element at the North Pole, Element X. It’s never explained why he needs a gorilla instead of, say, a highly trained and well-equipped mining company. Either way, MechaKong can’t handle the job, so the scientist needs a flesh-and-blood giant ape to do his dirty work. When King Kong is discovered, Dr. Who kidnaps him to mine the pole. Dr. Who sticks a radio transmitter in Kong’s head to remote control him, but like it says in the title, King Kong manages to escape. Somehow, he travels from the North Pole to Tokyo where he has a final battle with MechaKong at Tokyo Tower.
This version had more in keeping with some of the goofier Japanese kaiju cinema like “Godzilla vs. Megalon” than the more restrained American movies of the time. Worse than the ridiculous nature of the story is the really bad gorilla costume, and ridiculously weird science. But the miniature cities are awesome, and the camp factor is off the charts.
6. Son of Kong (1933)
This movie isn’t as well-known as many other Kong films, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not very good. But it has does have a place in fans’ hearts for its connection to the 1933 original. “Son” was released just nine months after the original movie, which is amazingly fast, especially considering it managed to come out in the same calendar year as the first. It’s an obvious attempt to cash in on the first movie’s popularity, but it didn’t quite work.
The cast and crew are mostly the same, with director Ernest B. Schoedsack and actors Robert Armstrong and Frank Reicher in the mix. The movie picks up after the first, with Kong dead, and, director Carl Denham in a bind. As the man responsible for unleashing King Kong in the first movie, he’s being sued for all the damage caused. He tries to recoup by sending a second team to Skull island under the guise of finding a hidden treasure. The crew finds another giant ape, but this one is relatively shrimpy, only twelve feet tall. They christen the giant ape Kong’s son, because who’s gonna argue with them? They have to try to escape the doomed island with Kong Jr.’s help.
There are a few dinosaur fights and a climatic earthquake that destroys the island, so there’s definitely some fun to be had. The movie also features stop-motion animation on par with the first movie. Still, the movie is just too rushed to hold up against the original. It flopped badly, and no one else tried to make another Kong movie for decades.
5. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
One of the first crossover “team-up” movies, this brought the American and Japanese monsters together. Fans had been debating the fight between these two giant monsters for almost a decade until Toho’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla” made it happen.
This epic clash was directed by Ishiro Honda and starred Tadao Takashima, Kenji Sahara, YÃ» Fujiki and IchirÃ´ Arishima. When a TV station is searching for a way to boost ratings, they find King Kong on a remote island and ship him back to Tokyo on a giant raft, just in time for sweeps week. At the same time, a submarine accidentally breaks open an iceberg, which frees the prehistoric lizard Godzilla. Godzilla swims to Japan, where he goes on a rampage through Tokyo. After trying several different ways to stop Godzilla with no success, they get the idea to just drop King Kong on him and get out of the way. Kong and Godzilla have a huge fight, and Kong gains the ability to absorb electricity to grow stronger, which he never had before or since.
Much like “King Kong Escapes,” the Japanese took a different approach to the monster, and it has its moments. The battle between the two monsters climaxes on Mount Fuji, and that part is great. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just killing time until the final battle.
4. King Kong (1976)
1976’s “King Kong” remakes the original movie with modern special effects and storytelling, but remains basically the same as the 1933 version. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, directed by John Guillermin and starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange (in her first movie role) and Charles Grodin, the story is told on a much bigger scale than ever before.
An expedition to a remote island in search of oil stumbles across a tribe that worships the giant ape, Kong. As in almost all versions, the tribe kidnaps the woman (Lange) to make her Kong’s bride. When the ship’s crew manages to rescue her, they also capture Kong. Hoping for publicity to make up for not finding oil, the company brings Kong back to New York, where he escapes. Rampaging through Manhattan, Kong climbs the Twin Towers instead of the Empire State Building, and faces his final battle with military helicopters.
This movie wasn’t immune to criticism upon release. Though the costume was highly advanced with Rick Baker contributing a detailed and emotive mask, it still amounted to a man in a suit. Also, the movie took a more campy approach than the original. Still, the 1976 version has grown in popularity over time. Many of the movie’s critics compared it to the original, but the costuming and more humorous approach work well in retrospect.
3. King Kong (2005)
The third and most ambitious remake of the original movie, director Peter Jackson co-wrote, produced, and directed this epic film. Starring Jack Black as Carl Dunham, Naomi Watts as failed actress Ann Darrow, and Adrien Brody as a writer turned hero, we get the most faithful adaptation of the story so far.
When an eager movie director hires a crew to travel to Skull Island to shoot a movie, they discover a gigantic ape worshiped by an island tribe: Kong. Once again, Darrow is kidnapped to sacrifice to Kong. But Kong and Darrow become friends after he reluctantly rescues her. After escaping from giant insects and dinosaurs, Kong is captured and brought back to New York. Despite attempts to make Kong into a stage attraction, he escapes from his bonds and smashes through New York, finally ending with the climactic battle on the Empire State Building.
The 2005 version has incredible special effects, using CGI and motion capture to bring Kong to life in vivid detail. The movie also has the best storytelling and acting of any other movie in the series. The only real problem is, at over three hours, it’s a bit too long — something Jackson has certainly struggled with as a filmmaker. There’s a lot that could have been cut, but it’s a great ride that updates the story and feeling of the original film for a modern audience with vastly superior special effects.
2. King Kong (1933)
This is the movie that started it all, and after all these years it still remains the best. It dazzled audiences at the time and still manages to capture a sense of awe and wonder, even after more than 80 years.
Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the movie stars Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong, and Fay Wray. We get all the basic elements that are handed down to later films. Just like the later movies, this one told the now familiar story of a film crew that sends an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island. On the island, along with dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures, they discover the giant ape. Kong is worshiped as a god among the island tribe, which kidnaps Ann Darrow (Wray) as a sacrifice. But Kong is captured and carried back to civilization during the rescue attempt. Kong is wheeled out onto an enormous stage as an attraction in the Big Apple, and during the show he escapes, again kidnaps Darrow, and first makes his iconic climb up the Empire State Building to battle seemingly endless fighter planes.
The stop-motion animation was groundbreaking at the time, and the iconic story still holds real drama. Though the 2005 version is vastly superior in terms of special effects and performances, there simply is no replacement for the original. “King Kong” is still the movie American monster movies are compared to, and shines as an example of great cinema.
1. What’s next?
King Kong gets the reboot treatment in 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island,” but while the film will be released in the modern day — and take advantage of today’s special effects wizardy to give us the best-looking Kong yet — the movie actually takes place in 1971. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson (among others), it follows a team of explorers on an adventure to an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean little do they know what’s awaiting for them there… but if you’ve been reading this far, you already know a certain giant ape will be there to keep things interesting. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”), the film debuted its first official trailer and poster at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
But lest you think that’s all the King of Skull Island has in store, Legendary and WB have big plans for the character following the latest reboot. Already set for a 2020 release, “Godzilla vs. Kong” will pit the colossal kaiju against one another in a shared cinematic universe following the success of the American “Godzilla” reboot from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” director Gareth Edwards in 2014. It will follow 2019’s “Godzilla 2” and introduces other super-sized monsters, reportedly a mix of old and new, meaning the action could be bigger and badder than ever, with King Kong right at the center of it.
Kong has been everything from a tragic figure to a goofy clown. He went from a tiny puppet to a man in an ape suit to a computer-assisted beast. He’s played the role of hero and villain, often straddling the divide between both. Despite his many changes and reinventions, Kong’s inherent awesomeness almost always shines through. Whether it’s because audiences can see so much of themselves in primates or that it’s always a pleasure to see something really big smash things, we can’t seem to get enough of him. If all goes according to plan, that won’t be an issue in the near future.
What’s your favorite take on “King Kong”?
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