Movie Review – Son of Kong (1933)

Principal Cast : Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, Victor Wong, Ed Brady.
Synopsis: The showman who brought Kong to New York returns to Skull Island and finds Kong’s son, a spunky 12-footer with a winning personality and his dad’s awesome strength.


Despite this quickfire sequel to RKO Pictures’ seminal 1933 adventure classic King Kong being almost entirely absent in the conversation about its legendary predecessor, Son of Kong is an all-too-brief film that deserves recognition in a similar regard. Clocking in at a brief 69 minutes, the film changes up the tone of the franchise by playing largely as a comedy, an interesting choice by director Ernest B Schoedsack, who returns to this property minus co-director Merian C Cooper and a much smaller budget. The film’s brief runtime might cause you to expect the titular Kong – or rather, a smaller juvenile giant ape around 12 feet tall – to appear a lot earlier in the film than he actually does, but that’s not to say the early going is anything but a trifle. Son of Kong turns out to be quite the thrill-ride, and for all the budgetary constraints and keener focus on whimsy, the film really isn’t a second-best sequel by any stretch of the imagination.

Following the death of Kong in the original film, filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is besieged by lawsuits and indictments he is forced to flee New York City; he hooks up with the same ship captain that took them to Skull Island the first time, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher), and together with manservant Charlie (Victor Wong) they make for the high seas for respite. Unfortunately, a stowaway in the form of young show performer Hilda Petersen (Helen Mack) causes an uproar aboard ship, and the quartet, along with the venal theatre agent Helstrom (John Marston) are tossed overboard to seek refuge in the nearby Skull Island. Upon arrival, they encounter a smaller giant ape that Denham nicknames the “son of Kong”, the juvenile giant ape assisting them fight of a menagerie of ancient and sauropod creatures, until a violent tropical storm threatens to kill them all.

I was surprised by just how much fun I had with Son of Kong. I expected a low-budget, cheesy knock-off of the Kong story, a reprise of similar themes or alternative characters included just to trade on the Kong brand, and to a degree that’s what we get but it’s not a bad film at all. Sure, it takes nearly two thirds of the film for Denham and the supporting cast to arrive at Skull Island and bump into Kong’s kid, resulting in an absolutely stacked third act effects bonanza that had me grinning like an idiot, but Schoedsack’s direction of original King Kong c0writer Ruth Rose’s wry screenplay is really quite strong as a dramatic moment of black comedy. Watching Denham scurry and squirt around responsibility for the destruction wrought by Kong in the previous film is a decent way to open your movie, and although the convoluted plotting involved to get them back to Skull Island feels a touch too contrived it’s all handled with a glint in the eye from Robert Armstrong. By the time the film ambles into its multi-pronged Kong-versus-everyone showpieces in the third act you’re salivating at what might transpire.

To that point; the cast all know what they’re doing and what kind of film this is, and don’t try to overburden the viewer or the story with credible nuance. This is an effects film first and foremost, and human characters secondary to why you’d buy a ticket to see this, but they’re well written just enough to make an emotional connection to the viewer strong enough to satisfy during the expected tragic ending. Armstrong takes center stage as the film’s lead, while Helen Mack makes a beatific female romantic interest against the history of Fay Wray’s blonde ambition. Frank Reicher has a great time as the ship’s captain, while John Marston’s snivelling Nils Helstrom is arguably the chief villain in a film with few legitimate bad guys.

The film’s visual effects might have had less of a budget than the original Kong but Schoedsack makes the most of every penny, giving us a respectably convincing series of Kong ape antics alongside a variety of fantastical dino-creatures inhabiting the island. There’s fights and action and some nice little comedic beats – some of which work, some of which feel too on-the-nose at times – and plenty of shrieking orchestral score by returning composer Max Steiner. Again, it was a touch annoying I had to wait until about forty minutes into this sixty minute movie to see any Kong or monster action, but once it arrived the film delivered. It should be mentioned at this point that the visual effects I am discussing were made in 1933, nearly a century ago, and by comparison to today’s CG-rendered realism a stop-motion Kong model might feel positively antiquated. So take my positive reaction with the dignified anachronistic technology of the day with contextual understanding as to its look in 1080p HD. The stop-motion here isn’t quite as fluid as the effects of the original King Kong, largely due to the reduced budget and nine-month production timeline (a total crunch for a VFX-heavy film like this!) but I would argue they stand up alongside the original for inventiveness and storytelling, if not always execution.

Son of Kong is a fantastic surprise. I expected it to be dull and indifferent to the original film, a lazy knock-off lacking impact or a point. This film subverted my expectation and delivers exactly what I had hoped for – a rousing story, fun and funny characters, some startling visual effects and a handsome production value belying the reduction in budget. The central cast all deliver, the direction is tight as a drum, and for all of it’s all-too-short 69 minutes I was enthralled by just how much I had a  blast with it. Definitely recommended, Son of Kong stands shoulder to shoulder with its far more iconic original as a testament to cinematic showmanship and technical craft.

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