Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 25, 2024

RECENT WATCHES: “Skull Island” (2023)

In 2016, everyone's favorite giant gorilla would return to animation via everyone's begrudgingly most commonly used streaming service. “Kong: King of the Apes” would be a CGI cartoon produced by Allen Bohbot, the same executive who co-created “Kong: The Animated Series.” It took a more sci-fi approach, Kong fighting robot dinosaurs in a near-future where gorillas are almost entirely extinct. While adequately animated and mildly compelling, the simplistic writing made it clear that young kids were the primary target audience. (The occasional gross-out humor did that as well.) The show was even more disconnected from the “King Kong” movies than Bohbot's previous “Kong” cartoon, abandoning all links save for the big ape and the dinos. If it wasn't for a sexy, dryly sarcastic fembot villain, I doubt I would've finished watching all twenty-six episodes. 

Last year, King Kong would return to Netflix for a decidedly different animated program. “Skull Island” was directly linked with the movies, taking place in the MonsterVerse continuity created by Legendary Productions. It was also not really approprite for young kids. In line with Netflix's brand of adult-skewing cartoons – which they call “anime,” despite being produced outside Japan –  it featured some gory violence. Despite being part of a multi-million dollar cinematic universe, “Skull Island” would drop on Netflix with little hype last summer. Those that did see it where not all that impressed. Considering how underwhelmed I was by Legendary Television's bigger budget entry into their MonsterVerse – and that it's only eight half-hour episodes, running a little less than three hours in total – I decided to review the whole series as one chunk. 

Set twenty-some years after the events of “Kong: Skull Island,” the show follows a crew of cryptozoologists sailing through the South Pacific. The expedition is led by Cap, with his teenage son Charlie and best friend Mike also among the team. Charlie rescues a mysterious young woman named Annie and brings her onboard. Mercenaries attack, in pursuit of her, before the entire boat is pulled under by a tentacled monster. Everyone washes up on Skull Island, where Charlie and Mike discover Annie has been living with a loyal, monstrous companion she calls Dog. Cap, meanwhile, encounters a woman named Irene, the leader of the mercenaries. As the parties seek each other out, and attempt to survive the vicious wildlife, they realize nobody will be leaving Skull Island as long as the huge squid still stalks the waters around it. The only creature strong enough to defeat such a monster is the enormous gorilla living at the island's center...

As with any animated project, it's hard to give any one person primary credit for molding "Skull Island." Willis Bulliner is credited with directing each episode, with a variety of talent being listed as co-director. I'm sure individual animators and producers also shaped the show. However, one voice is present throughout all eight installations. The script is by Brian Duffield. While Duffield is most acclaimed for the dialogue-free "No One Will Save You," his other projects are hyper-verbal, replete with frequently sarcastic and references-filled conversations. This is very true of "Skull Island." Even when on an island surrounded by killer monsters, potentially minutes away from death, the characters never stop cracking light-hearted jokes. Charlie and Mike are always trading fast-paced dialogue, sometimes about events unrelated to their current peril, and even when near death from an infected wound. Annie, despite spending most of her life isolated from humans, is maybe the mouthiest, snippiest character in the show. 

It's definitely distracting at times. The dialogue hits its nadir when Charlie jabs a giant ant with a rusted sword, the unsuccessful move causing him to cry "No stabby!" The sarcasm is even present in the episode titles, which have names like "What's Up, Croc?" and "Doggone It." The constant Whedonisms made Duffield's "Spontaneous" and "The Babysitter" hard to stomach at times. It's even more annoying in a series concerned with life-and-death situations against giant monsters, from an older, more classical time. 

As much as Duffield's attempts at Buffyspeak can grate on the ears, he does manage to frequently get me invested in the interactions between his characters. (Such as in "Love and Monsters," the best project to sport his name and the film that probably got him this job.) In "Skull Island," this is most true of Annie's partnership with Dog, a beast the size of a pick-up truck that resembles both a lion and a bulldog. The sixth episode, "Terms of Endearment," explores her backstory and how she met, and bonded with, this particular creature. This unlikely friendship, between a free-spirited teenage girl and her pet monster, is probably the highlight of the show. "Skull Island" frequently teases an attraction between Charlie and Annie. By the end, I think I was actually invested in these two, especially in the desperate choices they make to protect one another. A relationship between parents and children, humans and monsters, characterizes the whole show. When the cast isn't cracking wise – which isn't often – you can actually feel a real sense of emotion between these mismatched pairs. This is most apparent in the moment Irene reveals her connection to Annie or the way our heroes work to keep each other safe. 

As a monster show, "Skull Island" also isn't bad... Depending on the perspective you take. Though the snarky dialogue does it's best to undermine the tension, Charlie and Mike escaping a beach full of giant crabs in episode two is decently executed. Even better is a sequence from the third episode, where the boys are chased by an agile, Pristichampsus-like crocodilian. If nothing else, the show has fun cooking up some bizarre creatures, such as a giant rollypolly-like crustacean hiding in a rock, shape-shifting monkey beasts, man-eating plants, a turtle with huge aloe leaves growing from its shell, and a literal hedge hog. If your favorite parts of the "King Kong" movies have been the puny humans fleeing the extremely deadly animals of the island, then this show might satisfy you. 

However, you might have noticed that a specific monster was not mentioned in that last paragraph. Many of the negative reviews of "Skull Island" seem especially peeved that King Kong isn't that present in the show. Yes, much like the other MonsterVerse streaming series, "Skull Island" is weirdly reluctant to feature its star kaiju much at all. Kong doesn't even appear on-screen until the third episode and doesn't start doing much of anything until even later than that. Unlike "Monarch," which seemingly waited as long as possible before having Godzilla do anything cool, "Skull Island" does devote its last two episodes almost entirely to Kong. The penultimate installment is largely a flashback, showing Kong's ultimately tragic friendship with a Spanish speaking native. It's a largely nonverbal half-hour, all about the emotional connection between this small human and the giant ape, and features a pretty cool action sequence with some enormous chameleons. (Which, amusingly, change color every time Kong whacks them.) The final episode finally has Kong throw down with the cephalopod Titan, a cool Cthulhu-like adversary that fits in well with the MonsterVerse's menagerie of kaiju. While watching Kong thrash an eldritch abomination to death, I found myself thinking that "Skull Island" had finally turned into a pretty decent cartoon. 

Then, of course, it ends. The series wraps up in an abrupt fashion that leaves plenty of unresolved plot points for a potential second season to occupy itself with. As is all too typical of modern serialized television, the show stops just as it was getting good. Netflix hasn't committed to a continuation yet and, considering the lack of hype "Skull Island" generated, I'm doubtful it'll be greelit. Ultimately, I did find "Skull Island" a less frustrating watch than "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters" or "Godzilla Singular Point." It's similarly stingy with its A-list monster, in a way that leaves the viewer continuously wanting for more. 

Yet at least it's not occupied with a number of dull subplots or a preponderance of stifling lore. The characters slowly grew on me, despite Duffield's annoying dialogue. The narrative is fairly straightforward. Even if Kong is obnoxiously kept just off-screen for most of the program, there's at least plenty of other mysterious beasts to occupy the viewer. It doesn't live up to the awesome potential of an animated series set in the MonsterVerse and based around Skull Island. However, compared to the low standards of previous "Kong" cartoons, "Skull Island" admittedly clears a very low bar. [6/10]

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