Netflix has done some amazing work with their myriad original series projects, and currently stands as the greatest remaining outlet for action-based animation produced by the occident. Because of that, expectations were quite high for their Kong: King of the Apes show. The end results, though, were a bit disappointing.
Let’s start with what’s good. Animation aside, the show has excellent character designs; on a purely aesthetic level I think this is the most interesting of the animated Kong incarnations, and I certainly got a hankering to sketch a few of the cast. Voice acting is also generally good. While the vocalists don’t always have the best dialog to work with, they emote well, and it’s fun to play a game of “which performers do I recognize from the original Ranma ½ dub?”
The premise also seems like it should be a winner. Kong, in the future, fighting clones and robot dinosaurs (with freaking lasers!)? Sign me up. Two brothers driven apart by competing ideologies of natural conservatism against technological advancement? Lots of potential for drama and nuanced perspectives. Having a group of protagonists on the run from the law also has latent possibilities for illustrating that the world may not be so black-&-white.
But, the show we got didn’t really encapsulate that. So, what happened? Well, they state numerous times in the program that this incarnation of Kong has “the intelligence of a three-year-old”, and I imagine that was also a tacit statement of the intended target demographic: they kept things simple. What’s more, they kept things much like Captain Planet. By this I don’t mean that the show features a collective of international stereotypes or a token boy who can inexplicably talk to animals (though it does), but that the environmental conservation message is dramatically oversimplified: animals are good. While the main villain (the metal-faced Dr. Richard Remy) doesn’t outright dump toxic waste out of pure spite, it seems weird that a robotics tycoon feels the need to have poachers on hand as his hired muscle or stress about capturing rare animals for the sake of selling them… does the future have a poaching-based economy?
The show occasionally flirts with the notion of making Richard sympathetic rather than obnoxious, but quickly doubles-down on the fact that he’s a bad guy, just in case the kids at home might get the idea that our eco-terrorist heroes might be in the wrong about him. Meanwhile, team Kong has three cute animal mascots, and whenever Kong comes into conflict with anything, it’s a robot (or at least once, a mind-controlled cyborg), because wild animals must not fight amongst themselves. This is a bit antithetical to the original film, but then again, so is the big ape using a jet pack with power gauntlets and a cloaking device.
Kong himself in this version is more or less an adorable goofball, who occasionally beats his chest when really pressed, but mostly wants to be left alone with his surrogate family and perform loud bodily functions to elicit giggles from the kids at home. As with the previous Kong shows, the protagonist boy is Kong’s best bro, and the ape has no interest in abducting women… there’s some sort of statement in there about the audience’s id, right?
Since the show was created for Netflix, I assume it was intended for binge-watching, but the episodes don’t naturally flow together, especially regarding the subplots involving the gynoid Botilla (voiced by a former Maetel!), who may be the most openly mutinous robot since Starscream; several episodes end seeming like she’s about to pull a coup, then go back to status quo for the next one. The season finale ends with her tossing her boss over a cliff, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the next one just opened with them working together like nothing ever happened. There are also some awkward points where characters go mute for an episode or just disappear; I assume this has to do with availability of the voice actors.
The series utilizes CG animation, of which I confess I’m not a fan. Still, there are cases of it being employed more fluidly in other Netflix original programs, and often the blocking or storyboarding of a scene leaves a lot to be desired. The opening credits sequence just does the “random clips from the show” strategy that’s seldomly impressive, and the background music pulls the multiple offenses of being repetitive, intrusive, abrupt, and largely recycled from Kong: The Animated Series, which used it better. Since King of the Apes was animated by OLM, who’ve historically done awesome work like Ray, the first Berserk TV show, Gunsmith Cats, Godannar, and the Pokemon movies, expectations were for something a little more flashy.
The silver lining is that Kong: King of the Apes does improve over the course of its first season, and the problems noted earlier are weighted more heavily towards the first half of the run. It’s possible that it’ll find its footing and evolve into something to anticipate in subsequent seasons (the literal cliffhanger ending teases something with a lot of potential), but it’s a tough slog getting there as an adult viewer. At least we do get to see Kong fight a cyborg T-rex by doing kung-fu, and for that, it ain’t all bad.