Though they are most known for their work with Godzilla - or as I call him, "The Big G" - it's no secret that those guys over at Japan's Toho Pictures dabbled in American standards from time to time. A lot of their borrowings came in the form of actors - Raymond Burr and Nick Adams, for example - but their biggest grab (literally and figuratively) was the original King of the monsters, King Kong.
The much debated King Kong vs. Godzilla (look, I know we all want to believe there are two endings, but let's face it - America played the war card and got King Kong the win) is known by most monster fans, but Toho's second film with the giant gorilla is much less noticed. Thus, I present King Kong Escapes (I should have said "spoiler alert"!), which is actually a follow up to the 1966 Rankin/Bass cartoon series King Kong, not a sequel to the 1962 film.
Released in America in June of 1968, the G rated was helmed by Gojira auteur Ishiro Honda, though some American production materials - including the current Region 1 Universal Pictures DVD - list Rankin/Bass co-creator Arthur Rankin, Jr. as director. There's an interesting dynamic throughout the film, because the work of the Japanese monster makers is front and center, but the fingerprints of the guys behind Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Mad Monster Party is pretty easy to spot too. It's impossible for me to know how much of a collaboration between the studios this 45 year old film was - and I've only witnessed the American version - so I'm unsure what changes occurred between continents. I've never cared too much, because King Kong Escapes is a pretty groovy film to sit down with.
The plot revolves around Kong, of course, but we're in for a whole lot more than a recap of the 1933 classic. A diabolical Japanese man named Dr. Hu (often confused with Dr. Who, Who he is not), a dangerous dame named Madame Piranha (Mie Hama, who would play a Bond girl named Kissy Suzuki in the same year), and a bunch of henchman design a Mechani-Kong, so they can drill for the deadly and valuable Element X. In the meantime, a U.N. submarine - led by a chisel-jawed American, a smart Japanese man, and an approximately 3'6" tall female Lieutenant, stumbles upon the real Kong in his natural environment.
The woman, played by 18 year old American model Linda Miller (who, despite speaking English, was as dubbed as everyone else when the film hit the States), takes on the Fay Wray role in spirit, which is the film's closest tie to that film. But the hammy script amps it up a notch, with Miller's character quickly becoming able to relate to and even communicate with Kong. An incredibly stilted scene in which she pleads with Kong to stop shaking the submarine because "I sleep...and I eat...on this ship!" always makes me laugh, and there's a lot of unintentional comedy charm that comes from the diminutive actress and her fashionable bob hair-do. I've always been of the mindset that the English dubbing makes a lot of these latter Toho flicks more fun to watch, even if it is slightly blasphemous to say. Linda Miller (and the vocal talents of Julie Bennett) are a prime example of this.
Naturally, these factions criss-cross. One wants to study Kong in his natural environment, and one wants to brainwash him - that's right, part of the film involves the brainwashing of King Freakin' Kong - so he will dig for Element X. This serves the film's simple purpose - bringing Kong to cultures and battles, because no giant monster movie is complete without battles - but also allows for some kooky late '60s intrigue, with the bad dudes' lairs featuring many abstract sets and visuals that fit the time period. Like more adult fare of the time period - for example, Danger: Diabolik! or Barbarella - there's some pretty abstract stuff here, from the cool hovercraft to Madame Piranha's silly residence. (BTW, if you're invited in by someone named "Madame Piranha" and she says "Don't worry, there's no poison in this!" as she offers you a drink...would you drink it?)
King Kong Escapes is very kid friendly (aside from a pretty bloody image late in the film), but it's also a great example of how much fun Toho's monster flicks can be. If you're expecting a drop off from the quality of King Kong and Gojira you'll find yourself correct - this isn't that kind of spectacle. It is, on the other hand, a groovy example of what Toho could do to make a picture fun, and the mixture of goofy plot and giant monster battles is a pleasing one. It won't replace the '33 or '05 versions of Kong (Trash it if you like, but I'll back Peter Jackson's remake forever), but you've got a better chance of having fun with King Kong Escapes than any other Kong flick.