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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Static Thoughts - Kong: King of the Apes

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So, a new King Kong film is upon us.  Kong: Skull Island will be the third official attempt to relaunch the King Kong franchise after the first remake in 1976 by Italian mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the 2005 remake by Peter Jackson.  Kong has enjoyed plenty of other revivals well outside those films, though, as any giant ape fan will let you know.  Most famous among these would be King Kong vs. Godzilla, a Japanese co-production that was so successful it landed Kong his own animated TV show. 

However, the King Kong Japanimated show wasn’t the only time he came to the small screen.  No, I’m referring to last year’s Kong: King of the Apes, an American/Japanese/Canadian CGI-animated series for Netflix that premiered April 15, 2016.  It’s a 13 episode block of CGI ape adventures that pit Kong and a cast of human heroes against an army of robot dinosaurs in power armor in the strange and crazy world of 2050.  Given that we’re about to give Kong another shot on the big screen I thought it’d be fun to dive into what might be the strangest corner of his franchise, which is impressive given he once fought his own robot double as built by Doctor Who. 

So the first thing one needs to accept in Kong: King of the Apes is that we’re dealing with a show on a budget.  I actually ended up really liking the series but its got technical flaws a plenty, and if you’re someone with harsher standards on voice acting or CG animation, it can be pretty jarring.  None of the voice cast is exactly bad, but they’re hardly the stuff of legend, which can leave the more dramatic elements in a real lurch.  Thankfully, despite being a show with two child characters, the voice acting never dips too deeply into insufferable. 

The real standouts are Samuel Vincent and Kathleen Barr as the show’s antagonists but let’s talk about set-up before getting too deep into their performances.  The animation can also come off a little flat, at times.  It’s a CGI show, and while that works well in the action scenes, there are parts where the unreality of this world shines through.  This is mainly when characters need to engage in a movement loop, and it just looks like a 3D model awkwardly being dragged through a workspace.  It’s also clear the animators have trouble with stuff like water, but that’s a more forgivable issue. 

As to our plot, the year is 2050, and while humanity has gotten its act together regarding the environment, most animal species are thought to be extinct.  In this set-up, Kong becomes the charge of a family of scientists after he escapes from poachers and starts growing and an incredible rate.  Unfortunately, this arrangement ends up tearing the family apart, with the twin boys being torn between hating and loving Kong. 

This carries over into their adult lives too, so when their father passes on and leaves them his large wildlife preserve on Alcatraz Island things go bad pretty quickly.  The evil twin, Richard, who is a Cyborg and has a sex-bot named Botila that no one questions, ends up framing Kong for a ton of destruction and forcing the good brother, Lukas, into hiding with his ape pal.  Aided by a cadre of fellow nature lovers, Lukas and Kong must match the machinations of his villainous brother while trying to clear their names and unravel the mystery of Kong’s origin. 

This is overall a pretty solid set-up for a more episodic style of television, drawing from the likes of Transformers, Thundercats, He-Man, and Power Rangers for its set-up.  Richard is our Rita Repulsa type, stomping around his island hideout and cursing that infernal Kong for ruining his scheme of the week, while Botila plays the role of Starscream- the scheming second in command.  Lukas has gathered to him his masters of the universe, with Kong as the team’s mega-zord.  Like I said, there’s nothing structurally new here they’re just dusting off the old formula for a fresh coat of paint, and it ends up working really well. 

Lukas team is an interesting hodgepodge in that the most developed characters are the children.  That could easily end up being annoying, and if you’ve got a much lower tolerance for child characters, you might find them so but I never had that problem.  

Despite Lukas being team leader, the real main character is Danny Quon, an Asian American kid with the ability to speak to animals.  This is never really explained, by the way, they just say Danny’s an animal whisper, which translates into him being able to speak fluently with any animal.  He’s a bit of a goofball, but his friendship with Kong is genuine and keeps him from being entirely obnoxious. 

Franciska, a brilliant Mexican child prodigy and nature fan, joins Danny as the secondary main character.  She ends up roped into things because her grand-aunt was Lukas’ housekeeper as a kid and now just hangs out at his secret forest fort headquarters.  Okay, the writing on that one’s not exactly stellar and Anita, the housekeeper, really does lack for personality but it’s still cool that both the leads are heroes of color.  

Unfortunately, Anita’s not alone in being underdeveloped.  Lukas himself is a bit of a blank slate do-gooder hero and his partner in heroism Jonesy ends up much the same.  There’s also Amy Quon, Danny’s older sister, and a veterinarian, she gets the short shrift on character pretty often as well. 

However, the characters that absolutely shine are the evil Dr. Richard and Botila.  Richard is a great comedy villain in his unique blend of absolute pettiness and lack of perspective.  He’s an incredibly powerful Cyborg who’s perfected making robotic animals and created the world’s first fully functional robot girlfriend (though that’s only implied,), yet his entire life’s mission seems to be fighting a gorilla and poaching.  

He’s sort of on the same wavelength as a Captain Planet bad guy only we aren’t meant to take him seriously.  Botila, his sultry robot assistant, is the only one on the show who actually has an arc as she does eventually break out from under Richard’s control. 

Honestly, Botila’s slow crawl to freedom from the incompetent egomaniac who, shall we say, “uses her” for his own pleasure is kind of brilliant.  They don’t necessarily give Botila a motivation beyond freedom but that actually only serves to underline how much has been denied to her as Richard’s plaything.  

Once she finally gets out from under his thumb, her first action isn’t to take over anything it’s to experiment with laughter and giving herself emotions of some kind, just to try to feel and be more human.  Seriously, there’s an amazing Ex Machina type story just hidden in the background of this show.  

But all this with the characters is just sizzle, the real meat of the show is, of course, Kong himself.  Kong doesn’t really have a personality in the traditional sense, but he’s exceedingly fun and friendly, and the show always makes great use of having a giant gorilla on hand.  The action scenes are unquestionably the show’s highlight even if the CGI isn’t on the level of Pixar or Dreamworks. 
The robotic dinosaurs, complete with weapon and armor attachments, are great antagonists for Kong and an accessible format to introduce various new bad guys as the show demands.  Aside from the pterodactyls and T-Rex that make up the brunt of Richard’s forces, there’s also a robotic squid and megalodon sharks that are damn cool. 

On the flip side, the Kong Squad does a lot with giving him cool new technology for dealing with this stuff.  For instance, when Richard gives his dinosaurs mounted laser weapons they give Kong some sciencey, indestructible gauntlets that he uses to block the lasers like he’s Wonder Woman.  They also make him a giant sized jetpack complete with invisibility cloaking technology.  Really, the whole set-up is deeply reminiscent of Big Hero 6, which I hardly think is a coincidence. 

Big Hero 6 has its own animated series currently in the works but you can see clear elements of it in King of the Apes, mainly in the focus on the relationship between a young Asian boy and humanized entity.  I do think King of the Apes could stand to beef up the supporting cast as there’s nobody on the same level as GoGo, Honey Lemon, or Fred from Big Hero 6.  I do think Richards is a stronger villain but only because he’s allowed to be more openly evil and is being played for laughs in how evil he actually is. 

I don’t think Kong: King of the Apes is really going to change anyone’s life but it’s a fun little show and its homegrown charm ends up pretty infectious.  I initially only watched the show for review purposes, but as it went on, I got genuinely wrapped up in the adventures and story and found myself enrapt in this unique universe.  A lot of that comes down to the setting and blend of old-school pulp adventure, a utopic vision of the future, and like a ton of national geographic animal photographs. 

It’s the kind of setting where they can just throw together animals and sci-fi concepts as the mood strikes them and end up better for it.  I also won’t deny that getting a show with an optimistic vision of the future is an incredibly refreshing change of pace these days.  It’s a sad state of affairs when, in a show about a giant ape I a jetpack fighting robot dinosaurs in power armor, the most unrealistic part is the idea humanity might be headed for a better world than the one we’re in now. 

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