Just in time for the release of Godzilla vs. Kong is the complete rankings of all live action King Kong films.
8 – King Kong Lives (1986)
A proper sequel to the under rated 1976 remake that had the returning director, John Guillermin, returning special effects artist, Carlo Rambaldi, and starring Linda Hamilton, fresh off of Terminator. Those names combined with a full 10 years to develop did absolutely nothing to help King Kong Lives succeed. Introducing a Lady Kong seems like a decent idea, but once you get into the “plot” you realize all she does is strip Kong of everything unique that makes him special. Everything that made the original and numerous remakes so special is gone. Instead of a mysterious island, we get the southern countryside. Instead of sinister capitalists looking to exploit Kong, we get a somewhat justified military and a bunch of bumbling rednecks. Instead of Kong’s rampage through NYC, we get Kong squashing a few farmhouses. To delicately put it, this sequel is complete trash.
7 – King Kong Escapes (1967)
One should always expect state of the art effects and strong production values with a King Kong film. King Kong Escapes has none of those. That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s appeal. One has to consider that that this was produced in Japan by Toho, the studio behind the Godzilla series, and was produced after the success of King Kong vs. Godzilla a few years prior. Between the two, King Kong vs. Godzilla feels more like a King Kong film, and King Kong Escapes feels more like a Godzilla film. It even features a fight scene with Mecha-Kong. The adventure aspect of the plot does work for the most part, but there are too many elements that are a little too Godzilla like for what could have been an interesting Japanese produced Kong solo film.
6 – Son of Kong (1933)
After discovering the original King Kong movie, and then hearing that there was a direct sequel from almost everyone involved in the original, I absolutely had to see Son of Kong. Sadly it didn’t live up to my expectations. It is a very rushed sequel, coming out less than a year after the original. The rushed production shows in the story which is definitely uninspired, but definitely not in effects. What Willis O’Brien was able to pull off on even less time the original has to be considered a miracle. There are little similarities between Kong and his son as characters. This almost feels like a trial run for the friendly giant ape we would later get with Mighty Joe Young, but there is still a lot of entertainment in the island setting and the other creatures on the island. As far as rushed cash grab sequels that really have no business ever being made, Son of Kong is not a bad one.
5 – King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
The Kong suit looks like garbage, the odd satirical comedy is certainly not what you expect from a King Kong movie, and the fight scenes are at time unintentionally funny. All those things aside, it’s hard to not kind of enjoy King Kong vs. Godzilla for what it is. The focus is much more on Kong than on Godzilla, and the film makers give several nods to the original King Kong such as the tribal ceremony and the train sequence. Much like King Kong Escapes, do not expect anything more than your typical rubber suited Toho monster movie, and there’s enough here to hold your interest.
4 – King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong is easily the classiest and most epic of all the Kong movies since the original. It’s also the most unnecessarily bloated Kong movie of all time.aybe one of the most unnecessarily bloated blockbusters in any genre. There are moments I absolutely love it, such as the approach on the island through the fog, the T-Rex fight, and any moment with Jack Black as Denham. There are moments I absolutely hate, such as Naomi Watts juggling vaudeville routine to make Kong laugh, the frolicking through central park. There has top be a delicate balance between presenting Kong as a sympathetic character and still showing him as a deadly beast. Jackson softened Kong so much that it almost felt like you were watching an inter species soap opera. This movie could have been cut by 30-45 minutes and been twice as good. But what does work here REALLY works. You just have to have patience to get through slow moments.
3 – Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Skull Island not only improves on many of the issues of Peter Jackson’s remake, but it improves on many of the issues of the 2014 Godzilla as well. Giving it a fresh time period at the tail end of Vietnam allowed for the story to go in different directions than all the remakes that came before. Repeat viewings definitely help one to appreciate the subtly with Samuel L Jackson’s character and the themes of abandonment with the Vietnam war. John C Reilly is the most refreshing thing about the movie as a stranded WW2 pilot out of his time, and every line he has in the movie is hilarious. John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham are all fantastic, but sadly the two leads of Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson feel very out of place. Neither shows even the slightest sign of life, and you could literally remove their characters from the movie with no consequences. While the action set pieces don’t blow you away as much as Peter Jackson’s, the tighter run time and better character development is a fair trade off. The initial Kong attack on the helicopters is definitely on level with the best stuff that Peter Jackson did as well. Hopefully after Godzilla vs. Kong there will be a chance to revisit Skull Island as it’s easily the most imaginative part of the Monster-verse.
2 – King Kong (1976)
Years ago after seeing the 1976 King Kong for the first time if you had told me I would rank it #2 only behind the original I would have never believed it. Upon first seeing it I found the movie dated, the jokes awkward and the tone unintentionally campy. While I still agree with all of those complaints, I appreciate the good about this movie so much more now that it completely outweighs the bad. John Guillermin has moments where he builds the tension, scale and scope so well that I feel like I’m watching a blockbuster masterpiece. The best examples being the long drawn out first appearance of Kong, with Jessica Lange being kidnapped, chained up, and the dramatic build of showing Kong walking through the jungle into his first appearance. The climax on the WTC is absolutely thrilling and much more brutal than what other Kong movies have shown. This movie also handles the balance between beast and sympathetic creature much better than in the Peter Jackson version. When he needs to be a beast he’s a real beast, and when you need to feel for him you feel without it taking away from the threatening nature. By no means is this a perfect movie, but it is the one sequel or remake that truly captured the size of Kong. That I mean in terms of drama and not literal size of the character.
1 – King Kong (1932)
The original 1932 King Kong is not only the greatest monster movie of all time, I believe it stands as one of the greatest action blockbusters of all time even compared to the likes of Star Wars. A black and white 1932 film with early styled visual effects that have long since gone out of style should not hold up as well as this does. I would hold up the excitement of seeing a black and white stop motion Kong against any advanced animatronic or CGI dinosaur in Jurassic World. Even aside from the effects, the story is compelling and the characters are relatable. Not just the humans, but Kong as well. What Willis O’Brien was able to deliver in a performance with a puppet being moved one frame at a time is extraordinary. There is not a boring moment of this movie. Cooper and Schoedsack were known as real life Carl Denham’s, always filming in real locations around the world. It’s that much more impressive that they created an artificial world that feels just as exciting in 2017 as it did in 1932. All of the Kong movies that would follow have their own strengths, but this is the one and only that can be called a perfect film.