King Kong (1933) is hands down one of my favorite movies of all time (and arguably one of the best ever made, not that I’m biased). It succeeds as an adventure picture. It succeeds as a monster picture (and how sad is it that the spider pit scene doesn’t survive as anything other than a few fascinating stills?). It even succeeds as a love story (bestiality aside). Over the Thanksgiving holidays in my youth, WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, New Jersey used to show not only the original Kong, but also the lighter but no less fun Son Of Kong and the exceptional Mighty Joe Young. The day after the Kong fest, they would play some Toho daikaiju eiga, though the lineup that sticks in my mind included King Kong Escapes and King Kong Versus Godzilla.
Back to the point, what really makes Kong such a fantastic character is he has personality to spare. As a performance created mostly by a one-foot-tall puppet, the giant simian manages to go through a range of emotions and sell them all. There are live actors who to this day cannot convince me that they’re not robots, yet a piece of aluminum, rubber, and rabbit fur is capable of bringing an audience to tears. Even the fabulous Rick Baker, whose ape makeups have fooled watchful eyes, couldn’t quite wring the same emotions out of his creation in the John Guillermin version of the story in 1976. Naturally, this didn’t stop less talented creators from trying to convince viewers that primate costumes barely one step up from Don Post get-ups (man, they were great) were in fact giant apes, invariably to hilarious results. From Konga to Mighty Peking Man and everything in between, convincing ape suits have been the exception rather than the norm.
A mysterious man in an old age disguise (or is it?) wanders into a book store where Dr. Otto Lindenbrock (Kenneth More) peruses the shelves. Taking an enigmatic guide (written by the never-glimpsed Arne Saknussemm) from the old man, Otto ropes his niece Glauben (the truly beauteous YvonneSentis) and her beau, soldier and all-around wimp Axel (Pep Munné), to join him on an expedition to Mount Sneffels in Iceland, where a portal leading to the center (sorry, centre) of the Earth is located. Bribing stoic shepherd Hans (Frank Braña) with sheep (yes, really), the group descend into a world filled with not only wonders but also with dangers.
Juan Piquer Simón’s Jules Verne’s The Fabulous Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (aka Where Time Began, aka Viaje Al Centro De La Tierra) is yet another in a long list of adaptations of fabulist Jules Verne’s famous story. Verne has been linked with cinema almost as long as there has been cinema (just ask Martin Scorsese or better yet Georges Méliès). His work is tailor-made for the film medium, loaded as it is with visual wonders. Despite the dubiousness of much (but not all) of Verne’s science, his concepts were set and written in a time when discovery was still very possible (in a broad scope sense of the word). The world was vast and large sections remained unexplored. Consequently, Verne’s tales would be about probing a certain aspect of the world (and the universe) and pondering the possibilities of what could be out there awaiting man. It didn’t matter whether or not a ship like the Nautilus could take on a giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. It didn’t matter that a cannon can’t launch a manned missile From The Earth To The Moon. It didn’t matter that traveling Around The World In Eighty Days in a hot-air balloon would be a foolhardy venture at best. What matters is that the concepts invite flights of fancy. The stories are about the power of imagination and the fueling of the sense of wonder we all have inside us (admit it, you do) more than they are about rendering the astonishing with verisimilitude. Any adaptation, then, must also maintain such a sense, and Simón’s film does, or at the very least it does halfway.
The fantastical elements of the film kick in once the characters reach the underground ocean, and when they do, I feel fairly confident in stating that they can be enjoyed on multiple levels. The rubber puppet monsters are cheapjack in the extreme, but they are still monsters, and that counts for a lot. A fight between two Plesiosaurs (?) is actually quite violent, with chunks of meat being ripped out and blood roiling the water. The absurd giant ape (certainly a ripoff of Guillermin’s King Kong, though a large man-ape is mentioned very briefly in Verne’s story) will prompt flashbacks of The Mighty Gorga, I’m sure, but the scale and sets are handled relatively well. Also, there are a number of composite, forced perspective, and matte painting shots which are better than some stuff being done on computers today. The filmmakers never succeed one hundred percent in convincing the viewer that the expedition is actually inside the interior of the Earth (except for the scenes obviously shot in caverns), but the effort is definitely there, and that really goes a long way. There are also elements like the character of Olsen (Jack Taylor, exploitation cinema’s answer to William Fichtner before the question) which are truly intriguing but are brushed aside, amounting to little more than teases. The film’s major problem is that it takes its sweet time getting to the interesting bits, but it does so without managing to flesh out its characters in the slightest or building much tension, which we need in order to keep us hanging on. And once it gets to the dinosaurs, giant mushrooms, and so on, the film gives them all short shrift, rushing as it is to reach the end. So, what could have been some low-fi, dirt poor fantasy instead comes off like a highlight reel of same.
More’s Lindenbrock (and we won’t get into spelling variations or name changes between the written work and this) seems completely unfazed and mostly uncaring about just about everything in the world as well as what he witnesses underground. It makes it difficult to believe that he is a man as interested in exploration as he claims to be. Hans also is granite-like in mien. Even when he gets to embrace a lamb towards the film’s end, his countenance betrays no sense of joy whatsoever. Conversely, Axel and Glauben do nothing but show emotion (usually delight and awe), being (as they must have been) the audience’s point of view characters. There are no complex emotional moments whatsoever in the film, for good or ill. Some would argue that’s because the film is aimed at children, so these things need to be kept simple. I would argue that’s horseshit, and most children not only understand the meaning behind subtle acting, but they probably intuit it better than many adults. The problem is most kids would be bored to tears by this film, so the filmmakers’ simplifications are essentially for naught. And that’s kind of a shame, really.
MVT: The special effects are the meat and potatoes of the film. Unfortunately (and frustratingly), they are not dwelt on at any length, depriving the audience’s inner child from fully satisfying itself.
Make Or Break: The Make is the first monster scene, while the gang is still in the caverns. A five-and-dime dinosaur pokes its head out of a pool of thick movie fog. It lights the fuse which doesn’t quite fizzle but certainly never “goes boom.”
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