Is that a monkey? It sure is! Because when King Kong comes to town (or rather, when King Kong is forcibly brought to town), no one is safe. And with Godzilla Vs. Kong coming soon to HBO Max and theaters, I thought now was as good a time as any to rank the King Kong movies, including the one that started this upcoming grudge match in the first place, 1962’s King Kong Vs. Godzilla.
Because, look, I’m going to share a secret with you. If you were to ask me who my favorite big monster is, I’d tell you Godzilla in a heartbeat. He is the King of all Monsters, after all. But, if you were to ask me which series I’d rather watch if I was waiting for a plane off of Monster Island, I would shyly tell you King Kong, because 1) it’s a much shorter series of films (Only eight), and 2) they’re all mostly pretty fun. To be honest, some of the Godzilla movies can be an absolute slog to sit through (I’m looking at you, Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster). So, with that said, LOOK OUT! Because I’m going rank all eight of the live-action King Kong movies.
8. King Kong Lives (1986)
A lot of people will tell you that King Kong Lives sucks, and…well, they’re not wrong. King Kong Lives is definitely the worst live-action King Kong movie. Acting as a sequel to the 1976 remake (Wow, a 10-year gap!), King Kong Lives is actually the closest King Kong actually gets to being an American Godzilla movie. Let me explain. Starring Sarah Connor herself, Linda freaking Hamilton, as Dr. Amy Franklin, King Kong Lives has the big ape taking on the military and smashing them up good, just like Big G.
The story is absolutely bonkers, and the pacing is terrible. Following King Kong falling from the World Trade Center after the 1976 remake, he’s actually found to be alive and kept in a coma by scientists so that he can get an artificial heart and a blood transfusion. It’s thought that no other animal in the world has Kong’s blood, but then it’s found that there is an ape—a female ape!—that does, and so Kong has an ape love interest in this movie, as well as a child! King Kong Lives has its moments toward the end, and it’s also really silly, which makes it kind of fun. But, overall, you could probably skip this one. For completists only.
7. Son of Kong (1933)
Speaking of Kong’s child, the follow up to the original King Kong, Son of Kong, also features the spawn of the big ape. Coming out only nine months after the first movie, the story this time is nowhere near as engaging as the original, because King Kong isn’t even in it! Instead, his son, who is a little bigger than a normal ape, replaces him, and he’s not even the star of the show this time. Carl Denham is, and he’s played by the same actor, Robert Armstrong. Denham is on the run from debt and jail since people blame him for the destruction of New York in the first movie. He winds up on Skull Island again, where even the natives are pissed off at him after what happened in the first movie with Kong.
Overall, it’s not a bad movie since there’s a lot of adventure once they get to Skull Island. Plus, the stop-motion effects are again stunning, like with the Styracosaurus scene. But, I would say it’s a pretty bad King Kong movie because, like I said earlier, King Kong isn’t even in it, and his son pales in comparison. Honestly, the film kind of reminds me of Dora And The Lost City Of Gold when it comes to adventure, which is not really a compliment, but it’s not a slap in the face, either.
6. King Kong (1976)
This was Jessica Lange’s first movie (She beat out Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn for the role!), but King Kong didn’t need to be remade. Twice (I’ll get to that soon). The original is pretty much perfect as it is. This was the ‘70s, though, and why not remake King Kong, right? Also starring the Dude, Jeff Bridges, as a primate paleontologist, what sets the story forward this time around is oil, as an island in the Indian Ocean is thought to have it in droves. But, uh oh, they didn’t account for the giant ape living there.
The special effects are really good for this one, but less charming than the original’s. There’s a cool scene where Kong fights a giant snake, and the parts where Kong is running amok through New York are pretty exciting, especially when he starts stomping on people. He even climbs the World Trade Center in this one rather than the Empire State Building. However, it just feels like an unnecessary retread, because it doesn’t do anything extremely different like The Blob remake, or David Cronenburg’s The Fly. I do like it, but again, it doesn’t need to exist.
5. King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson’s King Kong is another movie that’s good but doesn’t need to exist. In fact, it probably doesn’t need to exist even more than the 1976 version, because it doesn’t do anything new besides update the visuals. The story is pretty much identical to the original’s. Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Jack Black star in this enjoyable, but kind of boring film. If I can credit it for anything, though, it’s that it’s one of the very few films that I genuinely have to close my eyes for, because there’s a scene with giant centipedes, and that’s like my nightmare.
There really isn’t much to say about this version of King Kong. If you love the original, then you will like this one, too. It’s a perfectly cromulent film. It’s just also unnecessary. Watch it if you don’t like black and white movies.
4. King Kong Escapes (1967)
If you don’t like King Kong Escapes, then we can’t be friends. Remember when I said that King Kong Lives was the closest we’ve ever gotten to an American Godzilla movie? Well, King Kong Escapes is pretty much just a Japanese Godzilla movie, but with King Kong instead. Co-produced by Toho, King Kong Escapes has Kong facing off against a mecha-version of himself. And again, if that doesn’t sound fantastic to you, then we just won’t get along, I’m sorry.
The film is typical Toho insanity. A mad scientist named Dr. Who creates a mecha Kong to dig for some radioactive property called Element X, but the robot breaks down. So, Dr. Who decides to just hypnotize the real King Kong to finish the job. The story is just window dressing for an epic battle at the end between Kong and Mechani-Kong, and it doesn’t disappoint, either. Plus, Kong is a rubber suit Kaiju this time, which is awesome. I love this movie. It’s just so much fun!
3. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962)
The story behind this movie is long and insane. In a nutshell, it deals with the original film’s stop-motion animator, Willis H. O’Brien getting screwed out of the rights to the character by a sneaky producer named John Beck. You see, Beck took the outline for the sequel O’Brien had penned, which originally had Kong fighting Frankenstein’s monster (!), and then sold it to Toho. Well, jerk move that it was, we still got a pretty badass movie out of the betrayal.
Basically, the story for the movie is that a TV producer wants to boost ratings for his company and thinks that a giant monster would do the trick. So, they find Kong, put him to sleep, and are going to use him. But, an American submarine wakes up Godzilla, and now we have a monster problem on our hands here. Kong fights Godzilla twice, then they roll into the ocean together, the end. It’s simplistic, it’s ridiculous, and it’s wonderful. I actually prefer King Kong Escapes to King Kong Vs. Godzilla, but I know this is the movie that most fans prefer, so I’m putting it here on this list.
2. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Okay, now this is how you remake King Kong. Ignoring the same old story beats set before it, Kong: Skull Island is a period piece that still feels super fresh. Starring Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman, Kong: Skull Island works so well because it never, at any point, takes itself seriously.
It also doesn’t care one whit for any of the movies that came before it. Instead, Kong is more important in where it fits into Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which also includes two Godzilla movies. And while I’m well aware that this movie was basically only created so that we could have the eventual Batman v. Superman-level event, Godzilla Vs. Kong, that doesn’t keep Kong: Skull Island from being one of the very best King Kong movies of all time.
1. King Kong (1933)
When ranking Godzilla movies, it’s common to see the original Godzilla at number one, and it’s because it’s the best Godzilla movie. Likewise, when ranking the King Kong movies, it’s common to see the original King Kong movie at number one. Because, like Godzilla, the first one is the best one.
It’s because the full imagination is on display in the original, and it just can’t be topped. The special effects are still jaw-dropping, the pacing is brisk, and the story is classic, but still somehow feels completely modern. Do you want to know how I know that the original King Kong still holds up? Because I let my 4-year-old son watch it, and he was never bored. And, this is a black and white movie with janky monsters, and the most melodramatic acting at times. All hail the King!
King Kong is a legendary (Pun not intended) character and will always be legendary. But, these were just my picks. What do you think is the greatest King Kong movie? Sound off in the poll or the comments section down below.