King Kong took to the big screen all the way back in 1933 with the help of some immaculate special effects, visual effects, and puppeteering. He had a son. He fought against Godzilla. He fought against a mechanized version of himself. He served as a metaphor for colonization. He had a mechanical heart at one point. Much like every 90s kid, I grew up with Peter Jackson’s take on the classic story, with Andy Serkis doing some classic ape work. And then the mighty ape was inducted into the MonsterVerse with two amazing films under his belt, with a third one on the way. Now, Skull Island isn’t the king’s first foray into the animated medium. He has been featured in The King Kong Show, The Mighty Kong, Kong: The Animated Series, Kong: King of Atlantis, and all of them are atrocious. So, it wasn’t like Skull Island had to live up to some super high standards, yet Brian Duffield and his team have done a good job.
The Netflix series begins with a girl called Annie being chased by a group of mercenaries on a ship. She jumps on one of the speedboats and escapes. The narrative shifts to another boat where a kid called Charlie is having an argument with his dad, referred to as Cap, over his future plans because he doesn’t want to be the Indiana Jones of the seas. Since Charlie isn’t old enough to make his own decisions, Cap disparages his opinions. Mike, who is there on a mission to find a mysterious monster with his dad and Cap, empathizes with Charlie as he is young enough to understand his angst. While they are dealing with all these issues, an unconscious Annie shows up and is rescued by Charlie. Soon after that, the trawler is sunk by a creature which seems like a mix between the Kraken and the Cthulhu. When they wake up, they realize that most of the crew is dead, and the survivors have been washed ashore on the titular Skull Island.
Given how Skull Island has been advertised as yet another chapter in the Monsterverse, you’ll probably be looking for the connective tissue between the movies and this animated series. So, I’ll advise you to weather those expectations because it seems to be set somewhere between Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla vs Kong. Neither does it feature Brie Larson or Tom Hiddleston’s characters, nor is it centered around Jia’s relationship with Kong. It follows a totally new crop of characters who, for the most part, try to regroup and get the hell out of the island, thereby making it a perfectly serviceable survival mission. Duffield makes a genuine effort to treat the journeys of Annie, Mike, and Charlie as coming-of-age stories as they learn to live without their parents, while Cap and Irene learn to trust their children’s instincts. But there are giant monsters and a Kong (who has a backstory of his own). Hence, the need for Titan levels of spectacle stands at odds with human levels of drama, and that can test your patience quite a bit.
As for the visuals, Powerhouse Animation Studios (which has collaborated with Legendary Television and Tractor Pants Production) has never disappointed when it comes to animation. You can look up any of the work they’ve done with Netflix and all of it is top notch, including Skull Island. The environments are bright and vibrant. But it only takes a few seconds for that very ecosystem to get incredibly bloody. The character designs, especially for the Titans, are very impressive. The same can be said about the expressiveness of each of the characters. Every action sequence has a sense of kineticism and fluidity to them. That said, Duffield and his team do run into the problem of scale as the creatures move way too quickly for their size. Hence that sense of weight that we are used to while watching the live-action Kaiju films is lost. They try to make up for that fact by emphasizing the impact on whatever surface they fall upon or through the sound design. However, it’s not enough. It’s a small-screen release. I think they should’ve gone the extra mile to truly sell the magnanimity of the action.
The voice acting in Skull Island is solid. Nicolas Cantu, Mae Whitman, and Darren Barnet have to do most of the heavy lifting. As Charlie, Cantu brings a very organic sense of urgency and nervousness to the show. He is the audience surrogate here and he essentially channels everything a teenager can possibly feel while stranded on an island full of the most heinous creatures. Whitman’s take on Annie starts off on a slightly whiny note. But the longer you stay with her, the more you start to understand where her sense of frustration and anger is coming from. All her one-way conversations with Dog (which isn’t Annie’s pet) are hilarious. On a slightly tangential note, a big shout-out should go to the voice actors in charge of the grunts and screeches of the monsters. There’s so much variety to be found there. Coming back to the human characters, Barnet’s Mike is the one responsible for keeping things relatively stable, which is apparent from his calm and sensible demeanor. Benjamin Bratt and Betty Gilpin are fine. I think I was expecting way more from them since they are Benjamin Bratt and Betty Gilpin. However, they do manage to put you in the shoes of their characters and understand what it means to oscillate between passion for one’s job and looking after one’s child.
In conclusion, Skull Island is a fine show with some enjoyable Titan vs Titan action. But it’s a little disappointing as a MonsterVerse entry. Well, technically, you can say that this is a problem with every franchise with inter-connected films or shows. When a certain story is set in an overarching narrative, you build up the need to connect it to the rest of the entries. If it doesn’t live up to that promise, then the whole endeavor feels pointless. There’s a massive gap between Kong in Skull Island (the movie) and when he’s in that enclosure in Godzilla vs Kong. So, why not flesh that out a little more. What does the story in this animated show add to the ongoing story? That Kong had a tiff with a Cthulhu monster? That’s really weak. As mentioned before, we could’ve seen the evolution of Kong through Jia’s perspective. We could’ve explored Hollow Earth with Kong. I don’t really understand the creative decisions that went behind choosing this particular story. Maybe if they didn’t advertise it as a MonsterVerse show, I wouldn’t have these complaints. However, since they did, here we are. Make of that what you will.