King Kong is one of the biggest movie icons in Hollywood history. The colossal-sized ape is recognizable to many generations as the movie monster that has inspired countless sequels, remakes, and spinoffs over the course of almost 85 years! This weekend, Kong will be rebooted once again in “Kong: Skull Island,” which looks to be a very entertaining movie. Before then, let’s look back at the lengthy history of King Kong in cinema.
The King Kong character was created by American filmmaker Merian C. Cooper. Merian was very fascinated with primates, specifically gorillas, at a very young age and it inspired him to create his own motion picture featuring a giant-sized gorilla. Cooper’s original idea for his “King Kong” movie was to travel to Africa and cast a real life gorilla for the role. On top of this, he was also going to use a real komodo dragon to fight King Kong in the film. This would have been very difficult to begin with, but his dreams became an even bigger fantasy after the Great Depression, when he no longer had the budget to fly to Africa.
Instead, Cooper decided to use stop-motion animation with the help of special effects and stop-motion pioneer Willis Harold O’Brien. Together, things turned out for the better as they created a convincing model of King Kong that appeared to be over 50 feet tall when in reality, the model only stood 18 inches and was made with rabbit fur. The fact that this is still watchable after 85 years proves that this movie was way ahead of its time and we can only imagine the audience’s initial reaction.
King Kong (1933)
King Kong was released in 1933 and the movie didn’t just transcend stop-motion or horror films, but the entire film industry. The feature follows an American film crew who travels to the mysterious Skull Island located in the Indian Ocean. It features a ton of oversized, fantastical animals such as giant apes and dinosaurs. A group of natives capture Ann Darrow, the female star of the exotic film, and bring her to King Kong to be eaten alive. Instead, Kong takes a liking to Ann and defeats a Tyrannosaurus Rex to protect her. The film crew finds the primate to be so fascinating that they capture him and bring him back to New York to be exhibited as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Kong escapes the exhibit, captures Ann from her home, and carries her to the top of the Empire State Building. This is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history and most of you know this story ends with Kong being shot off the tall skyscraper by a turret gun on an airplane. This is the story that is the focus of many spin-offs and reboots in the next 85 years, including a spin-off released a year later titled Son of Kong.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
1962 was an amazing year: the New York Mets won the world series, John Glenn went to outer space, Marvel Comics debuted many of its iconic characters such as Spider-Man and the leading members of the Avengers, and King Kong returned to the big screen. This time, he was pinned against Japan’s most iconic monster: Godzilla. Willis O’Brien’s original idea was to pit Kong against Frankenstein. The idea was shut down due to budget issues – and the rest is history. King Kong vs. Godzilla definitely isn’t a masterpiece like the 1933 feature, but it is the first time that we saw King Kong in color, in a Japanese film, and facing off against Godzilla. Even though the movie hasn’t aged well, it was a visually epic showdown when first released.
The other lesser-known Japanese King Kong movie was titled King Kong Escapes and it was released in 1967. The Japanese went to a new level of creativity with this installment, as they pinned King Kong against a robotic version of himself on top of the Tokyo Tower. This movie tried too hard to be a modern classic of the iconic 1933 production, but failed, as it has faded into obscurity.
King Kong (1976)
Even though King Kong Escapes feels a lot like the original, the 1976 King Kong was the first official reboot of the classic black-and-white film. Paramount Pictures updated the effects and switched from stop-motion animation to special effects and makeup. Rich Guru dressed up as the titular King Kong and Dino De Laurentiis produced the film, which stars Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. King Kong looked more realistic and he was able to express his emotions more clearly with a mask. They also used an animatronic version of the giant gorilla, but only in a minimal amount of scenes. In fact, the special effects were so fantastic that the movie went on to win Best Visual Effects at the Oscars. This adaptation was a little more light-hearted and comedic than some of the other versions of King Kong, but it still goes down in history as a classic.
The movie received a low-budget sequel, 9 years later in 1986, titled King Kong Lives. This film shows what happens after the iconic ending where Kong is shot off of the World Trade Center. Kong is resurrected after a decade-long coma and meets the love of his life: Lady Kong. The movie was a huge flop critically and financially and may be the worst entry in the saga. It scored a whopping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes due to its dull cast and mundane plot. The eighth wonder of the world was put into a 20-year coma until he was resurrected by Peter Jackson in 2005.
King Kong (2005)
After so many horrible installments, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson stepped up to the plate and directed the next King Kong movie. This film was visually stunning and extremely faithful to the original. If you cut out the first 30 minutes (which contains pointless set-up) leading up to the boat ride to the island, this version of King Kong is amazing because it is an upgraded version of Cooper’s Classic. Peter Jackson brought the motion-capture king, Andy Serkis, along to play Kong. There were some amazing performances and terrifically exciting moments, but most importantly, this movie re-captured the entertainment value of the original. It’s definitely a long film, but once you get past the set-up, King Kong is a fun and enjoyable watch.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
12 years later, we are getting a fresh adaptation of King Kong. This time, we are getting a prequel as the movie dives deep into the mythology of Skull Island and all of the monsters who live there. The film dons a terrific cast, which includes Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reiley. The modern special effects will bring a bigger and deadlier Kong than ever before, to the silver screen and this weekend, we will get to see the King smash some monsters to pieces.
Kong: Skull Island sets up a future re-match between King Kong and Godzilla. Warner Bros. is building a cinematic universe between a variety of monsters and they will all battle in a future installment. This “Kong-Godzilla” universe will include classic and new intriguing monsters. We can only hope these movies are faithful to the King Kong character and that they do not tarnish his rich history.