"Kong: King of Atlantis" It's Disney Kong!
Did you know that a ferocious giant ape would be an ideal lead for a children’s cartoon series? Neither did I, but those forward-thinking folks at BKN International seized on this idea in 2001 to create Kong: The Animated Series, which today seems to be largely forgotten. However, when BKN heard that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was readying his own King Kong remake, they weren’t about to take the challenge lying down. They beat Jackson to the starting gate with Kong: King of Atlantis, an all-new DTV feature based on the previous series.
Kong: KoA feels much longer than its seventy minutes because, despite having his name in the title and his mug on the cover, Kong only sees about three minutes of genuine action. Needless to say, he’s looking for new representation. Apparently a scientist cloned this Kong from the original, and her son Jason somehow shares genetic material with the new gorilla. Jason must physically merge via “Cyber Link” with this somewhat feebleminded Kong to provide guidance at critical moments. Jason, his surfer buddy Tann, the shaman Lua, and the big guy live on the remote, tropical Kong Island. Yes, Kong might as well be hanging out with Shaggy, although for him a Scooby Snack would be the whole dog.
Still, BKN’s visionaries felt the addition of “hip” teenagers wasn’t quite enough to bring Kong into the 21st century. Wire-fu? Too passé. Full frontal? Saving it for the director’s cut. It turns out what the Kong formula really needed was Disney-style musical numbers. The ape himself stays silent, unless he’s singing harmony, so the supporting cast assaults us instead. I’ll leave the audience to draw their own conclusions about a Kong who’d rather listen to show tunes than smash biplanes.
As our story begins, Lua has a disturbing vision of the island’s future while the guys discover tar pits popping up across the island that threaten the exotic wildlife. As well as one cuddly bear cub. While Lua and Jason petulantly bicker over Kong’s priorities in this crisis, the honey-tongued reptilian Sycophis recruits the alienated ape to rule as king of the buried continent of Atlantis alongside Queen Reptilla. Unknown to Kong, the Queen’s plan to raise Atlantis will destroy the island and set in motion her campaign for world domination. The gang follows through a tar pit to Atlantis where they are caught up in a heated civil war.
This Kong is more domesticated than the 1933 version, closer to a dog than a savage beast. He is dangerous when angry though, and when he gets really excited he doubles in size. Well, in combat anyway, the issue of Fay Wray pin-ups is not explored. Also he’s blue, which may or may not be related to said excitement. Jason is a typical teenage hero: brave but a little naïve and impulsive. His genetic link with Kong doesn’t seem to make him scratch for fleas, but it does cause him to say “bro” a lot.
Slacker Tann obediently follows along, doing little apart from occasionally demonstrating his strength and leering at women. Lua is one of those holier-than-thou know it alls, and like most great minds, she slinks about in next to nothing. Sycophis is by far the most interesting character. A cross between G.I. Joe‘s Cobra Commander and SpongeBob‘s Squidward, he alternates between obsequiousness, bombast and sardonic grumbling. He also provides the film’s only intentional comedy as he’s subjected to various forms of physical abuse from friends and foes alike.
That said, there’s no shortage of the unintentional variety. In spite of the gang’s great concern for preserving the island, Kong himself can be observed snapping dozens of trees in half every time he walks through a shot. Then there’s the plot’s central conceit that the Atlantean people would actually want a half-witted, violently unstable monkey for their king. Art imitating life I suppose.
Another plot point, evidently drunkenly scrawled on a cocktail napkin at a BKN bender, is the gargantuan sundial on the island that inexplicably controls Atlantis’s altitude depending on what time it reads (!). The real kicker comes when our heroes have been imprisoned deep in the Atlantean palace, crawling with huge reptilian guards, and who rescues them but the cuddly cub. (An emasculated Kong was described as having a “Richard Simmons moment” while this scene was shooting.)
There’s plenty of action with the kids, but nothing particularly exciting, especially for an audience that is impatiently shifting in its seats waiting for Kong to join the fight. When he finally does, he faces off against a squad of giant lizards in a rather generic tussle that can only make the viewer wish Godzilla were among them.
Kong’s combat is unquestionably the main draw of the franchise, and should have been heavily featured. Furthermore Kong’s one big fight here takes place in the expansive, empty courtyard of the Atlantean castle and so fails to give the sense of scale that makes monsters like Godzilla exciting. Having the Atlanteans trampled underfoot or the giant combatants scale the castle walls would have helped rectify this. Removing much of Kong’s intelligence and menace also undermines the character, although I understand BKN didn’t want to traumatize a young audience.
Kong’s animation is primarily cel with a few CGI elements, and slightly superior to that seen on modern WB TV series such as Justice League. It never quite impresses, but is more than adequate. Some of the character designs are quite interesting, save Kong’s unnervingly good-natured countenance.
As for the Disney wannabe songs, the best that can be said is that they’re not nearly as awful as one might fear. The petty tug of war for Kong’s affections between Jason and Lua leads to the ludicrous “Decide Now,” which features the classic line “She’s just a girl and giving orders isn’t cool.” At its climax the dueling singers dramatically clamber up Kong’s arms to shout directly in the nonplused beast’s ears. If you happen to be Kong’s Secret Santa he’d like a nice pair of earplugs.
Oddly there are no special features on the disc. I would be very interested in seeing the alternate character designs for Kong. At least parents are spared karaoke versions of the songs.
Kong: King of Atlantis is a suitably rousing adventure for the little ones. It simply isn’t a very good vehicle for Kong, and aficionados may not last beyond the first earsplitting strains of “Decide Now.” Nevertheless BKN’s Kong is reportedly due to return in a DTV sequel and a new CGI TV series. Rumors of a beyond-the-grave duet with Fay Wray has yet to be substantiated.