Everything about King Kong Escapes is inexplicable. It's... no, let's wait a second. Look at that Japanese poster there. I mean, really look at it. Bask in it.

It is only descriptive of the things actually to be found in the movie it's advertising, as giddily pulpy and inane as those longs would appear to be. It is rare to find any piece of movie advertising that tacky and also that honest.

The film isn't in any visible way related to Toho's King Kong vs. Godzilla, released five years earlier, and even less to RKO's King Kong from 1933. It is, however, a feature-length spinoff of a mid-'60s King King TV cartoon series produced by Rankin/Bass but animated by Toei, making it the first American TV show with to have its animation farmed out to Asia. This cross-Pacific collaboration having worked out so well, Rankin/Bass then took the natural step, for a given definition of "natural", of having the world's most prominent creators of giant monster movies take the lead on their King Kong feature. I do not know this means that King Kong Escapes is therefore best thought of as a Japanese movie made with a lot of American money to help offset RKO's steep licensing fees, or an American movie made in Japan to keep production costs down, and therefore whether the 96-minute English dub or the 104-minute Japanese original is the more "official"; since it was released in Japan in 1967, almost a full year before it hit the States, I don't feel particularly bad about sticking to the longer version for this review.

Despite this being a literal live-action cartoon, it got the A-list treatment (perhaps Toho felt, even now, that Kong was a more "important" monster than Godzilla), in contrast to the shot-on-the-cheap Godzilla pictures released on either side of it: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (itself an aborted Kong vehicle) and Son of Godzilla. In contrast to those ratty little cash-grabs, King Kong Escapes has all of the great masters of Toho's daikaiju eiga gathered in one place: director Honda Ishirō, producer Tanaka Tomoyuki, composer Ifukube Akira, and effects director Tsuburaya Eija, taking a more active leading role than he was on the contemporaneous Godzilla films; it is the last film where those four men would work together in those capacities (sort of - Tsuburaya received a largely honorary credit for 1968's Destroy All Monsters). And they were joined by the less-storied but still hugely important cinematographer Koizumi Hajime (making his very last Toho picture), screenwriter Kimura Takeshi, and stuntman/actor Nakajima Haruo, making this a much more polished and professional set than the Godzilla films were enjoying at the time.

And yet, the results are almost identical. King Kong Escapes hinges on a loopy world domination plot by Bondian supervillains that feels much more like something Fukuda Jun and Sekizawa Shinichi would dream up than anything Honda would put his name to. And it's an unabashed kids' movie, much more so even than the wretched "Toddler Godzilla" antics in Son of Godzilla, befitting its origins. There are very few obvious benefits to its appropriation of a more well-heeled crew: Ifukube's music, which is nowhere near his best, is far better suited to the matter of giant monsters than Sato Masaru's pop-music indulgences, and Koizumi's camerawork is typically great at creating a sustained atmosphere and encouraging a suspension of disbelief.

But where it counts, King Kong Escapes is just as flighty and ludicrous as any Toho's "for the kiddies" daikaiju films, even with Honda's humorless direction keeping it from feeling as trivial. It's even worse, in some cases: Tsuburaya's Kong suit is easily the worst he thing he ever designed, and a strong contender for the title of Toho's all-time worst-looking kaiju. Perhaps this is a factor of its need to somewhat mimic a cartoon character: one of the very worst things about Kong his his face, weirdly expressive in a horribly unpleasant way, and prone to exactly the kind of mugging one expects from a broadly-made kids' show. That's where the problems begin, though, not where they end: there's also the matter of the inexplicable body shape (there are shots where Kong looks like the hunchback of Notre Dame), the ratty fur, and the use of two suits, one with much shorter arms than the other for action sequences, that result in some eye-watering continuity lapses.

The other monsters in the movie are all at least somewhat better. There's a dismayingly inert sea serpent, but a giant dinosaur (subsequently named Gorosaurus) and the robotic Mechani-Kong are at least moderately charming; Gorosaurus looks somewhat like a kangaroo rat wearing a lizard's skin, but that's the worst you can say about it. Which is actually pretty bad. But for all the ridiculous hokiness of the concept, I like the design of Mechani-Kong quite a lot, and Sekida Yu's performance of the machine is, honestly, rather more nuanced and thoughtful than Nakajima's spastic Kong.

As for the plot that ties all of this together, it's... There's a reason I've been putting it off, y'see, which is that the story of King Kong Escapes is fucking nuts. I am given to understand that the scene structure of the American version is a little bit more streamlined, but in any case it involves a plot by the craven "foreign agent" Madame Piranha (Hama Mie) and the villainous Doctor Who (Amamoto Hideo) - even in the Japanese language version, that is audibly his name. In everybody's defense, the legendary BBC show wasn't a big deal outside of Great Britain yet, and possibly not even within it. I am not sure. The doctor and the madame are busy hunting in the Arctic for a vein of Element X, the key substance in building a world-destroying nuclear weapon, and the Mechani-Kong was built for this purpose; but the radiation is so powerful that it fries the robot, and Doctor Who theorises that only the real King Kong is strong enough to withstand the Element X mines. Meanwhile, the crew of the UN research vessel Explorer - Americans Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason) and Susan Watson (Linda Miller) and Japanese Nomura Jiro (Takarada Akira) - are stranded on a South Pacific island, where they encounter that same Kong, who instantly takes a liking to Susan. Thus the even Doctor determines that if he is to control the giant gorilla, he needs to kidnap her and her colleagues.

That is the excessively cleaned-up version of a plot that includes elements of political thriller, spy adventure, monster movie, and South Seas adventure, and takes its sweet damn time about it: I don't know about the American cut, but the Japanese version is achingly slow to get started, with its plotlines coalescing very slowly over the course of the first 50 minutes or so. Though, in the film's defense, the human plot and the kaiju action - inevitably, King Kong escapes (get it?) from Doctor Who's clutches, and he and Mechani-Kong end up having a fight in Tokyo that is almost good enough to make up for how awful the Kong suit is - are unusually tightly-bound in this case.

Even so, the human plot still isn't all that interesting, with the three members of the Explorer crew filling the role of so many B-movie science-heroes of the 1960s, and Reason being an intensely boring stock type on top of it (the square-jawed All American with perfect hair and no personality). It only comes to life when the villains are around: both Hama and Amamoto are deliciously campy, particularly the latter, who understands precisely what character he's playing (a sniveling bad guy written for easily-bored kids), and lands at exactly the right place of scenery-chomping hamminess to make that delightfully fun, not just garish.

Not much of the film is fun at that level, though: Honda was a poor choice of director for the material, and he mostly recedes from it, leaving a film that's neither here nor there in terms of pacing and tone. It's not really all that entertaining until Kong and his robot clone arrive in Japan, and that's at the end of a lot of unnecessarily complicated plot shenanigans. It's weird and random without being particularly memorable, and it's very difficult to feel even a little bit sad that Toho never bothered trying to get Kong back after this picture.