I was pretty hard on Kong: The Animated Series when I first saw it back in 2001, and a lot of that has to do with the context in which it emerged. The timing of its release makes it seem like a replacement for Godzilla the Series (one of the greatest cartoons of all time) and when you compare the idea of a giant, firebreathing lizard assisted by a team of cooky scientists to an ape and some teenagers trying to steal rocks from their history teacher, the later show comes up short. This was also the era when Digimon ruled the airwaves, and monster-buddy shows like Yugioh, Medabots, and Monster Rancher were commonplace enough that you could look at Kong and say “Oh, another one of those.” That said, in retrospect, it was a decent little 40-episode program.
The premise revolves around a clone of the original Kong, whose DNA has been supplemented with that of a human boy named Jason (making him a literal bro). Jason and Tann (Jason’s best friend, who is inexplicably a multimillionaire) go to Kong Island (no skulls here, kids) to visit Kong’s creator/Jason’s grandmother, bringing their archaeology professor, the mustache-twirling, Spanish-accented Ramon De La Porta, along. No spoiler that it turns out he’s just there to loot, and he quickly makes off with various stones from the island’s temples, each of which grants a magical power.
The boys and local shaman Lua team up to traverse the globe, re-collecting the stones, and battling Ramon at various historical sites (all of which have some tie to the legendary Atlantis). Kong’s genetic link with Jason allows them to merge, giving Kong some strategic insight or (more importantly) allowing Kong to hitch a ride for long airplane journeys, and also use a power-up form that’s seldom actually acknowledged. De La Porta also stole that tech, so he and his various goons can fuse with any animal that happens to be around, leading to no shortage of monsters of the week. The scope of enemies isn’t limited to that, however, as there are plenty of other cryptids running around the Kong universe, the most significant being a demon sealed in the temple the stones were stolen from, along with harpy minions.
The series features animation on the higher end of what one would expect from American action cartoons of the time, and solid, if a little basic (compared to Digimon or Godzilla the Series), creature design work. The voice cast is great (another who’s-who of Ocean Group staples), and the characters, unlike King of the Apes, are all generally likeable and serve a purpose to the story. While a lot of the show is “get the stone of the week”, there are hints of greater mythology dropped along the way, and (while the DVD set puts the episodes out of order and Fox only showed the first 13 of them) there actually is a conclusion to the story arc. Some of the “filler” episodes are also quite memorable, such as Lua meeting a child who may be another member of her tribe, a washed-up cowboy filmmaker wanting to put Kong into his movie, or a love triangle with hyper-evolved fish people in Loch Ness. The execution is solid, which makes it surprising just how many of the same people went on to make Kong: King of the Apes, or not to mention the Kong: the Animated Series movies.
“Not to mention” them… nah, of course they’ll be mentioned!
With Peter Jackson’s movie in 2005, the animated series made a return in a big way with an animated feature, which is both great, and sort of baffling. The premise of this film, Kong: King of Atlantis, is that Atlantis (which has now been retconned to a fantasy land full of reptites and bug people, stretching the definition of racial diversity mentioned in the TV series) is going to be raised from the ocean (but it’s also in a parallel dimension, in the midst of a civil war?), and its current dictator Queen Reptilla seduces Kong away from our heroes, because he’s actually the rightful heir to the throne (?!). None of that was established in the show, and you have to play some serious mental gymnastics to gloss over the inconsistencies (like, at one point, the main characters are being attacked by a bear, and they have an animal mind-controlling device on them, but nobody thinks to use it?), but it’s entertaining, engrossing, the most gorgeous animated incarnation of Kong, and has some catchy musical numbers. That’s right, it’s a musical… I guess they figured you can’t just make an animated movie in America without lots of songs? The end result is sort of insane, and that’s what I like to see in an adaptation.
The second movie…it’s rough. Made in 2007, Kong: Return to the Jungle opted for full, incredibly janky CG instead of the nigh-theatrical quality 2D of the former feature, and that’s not the only thing about it that makes it feel like a missing link (pardon the pun) to Kong: King of the Apes. The characterization is shallow, and there’s much more stupid/crass humor, a hamfisted environmental message, even a pointless tiger cub and island zoo in the middle of a city. The concept of a major zoo break, with dinosaurs busting out to battle zookeepers in power armor, is solid, but with that cringe-worthy animation it’s unfortunately sort of painful to watch.
41 Entertainment is dedicated to their Netflix property these days, but it would be nice to see them return to form with some of the quality that was previously on display in this show. Heck, they could even make a Kong-vs-Kong crossover… as long as they don’t keep using those models from Return to the Jungle.