Come with me to darkest Africa and relive the guilty pleasure of Congo (1995)
If a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango, stuck it all together and danced a dainty tango, I still doubt he and the rhino would have come up with a film quite as oddly enjoyable as CONGO, no matter how much Um Bongo they’d been drinking.
Critically mauled on its release, and trapped in the shadow of its Jurassic predecessor, there seems to be little affection for this Frank Marshall-directed Michael Crichton adaptation, but I love it. Yes, I know it’s a bit rubbish. The first act is all over the place, the casting isn’t quite right, the special effects and sets late in the movie are a bit shoddy, and the script’s only a couple of b’wanas away from being a hate crime, but there’s such an old school Saturday morning serial feel to it that it kind of gets away with it. Ironically, as time has passed, it’s the subplot about the satellite communications system which feels anachronistic and old-fashioned, whereas the exploration into the deepest jungles of Africa have started to acquire a timeless, Edgar Rice Burroughs quality. I bet this film would work really well in black and white.
A film’s always going to have difficulty in keeping the audience’s loyalty when it casts Bruce Campbell and he looks like he’s going to be the hero but ends up just being a cameo. As the film progresses, you can see why Campbell didn’t get the lead (he auditioned but lost out to Dylan Walsh) – he’s too heroic a figure to be convincing as the mild-mannered primatologist who’s taught a gorilla to speak using sign language. If you’ve repeatedly faced down an army of Deadites, angry gorillas aren’t really going to phase you. Tim Curry hams it up gloriously (with an accent that has to be heard to be believed) as Romanian philanthropist/ treasure hunter Herkermer Homolka (really) who sees returning Amy to the jungle as the perfect cover for him to return to Africa to resume his lifelong search for King Solomon’s legendary diamond mines in the lost city of Zinj.
Once they reach Africa, the film improves markedly, becoming more confident in its unfashionable but totally enjoyable identity as a jungle adventure story, supported by an evocative and primal score by Jerry Goldsmith. It’s only once it’s safely landed in the Dark continent that the movie plays its trump card and introduces us to the laconically swashbuckling Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson, GHOSTBUSTERS). Hudson is immensely entertaining as the ironically self-declared “great white hunter,” and he’s so good you find yourself wishing he’d been spun off into his own series of badass adventures beyond CONGO. We even get an early appearance from Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in one of his first film roles as Munro’s loyal sidekick Kahega.
There’s a romantic nostalgia to the idea of a quest for a lost city of treasure in the jungle and with Munro Kelly as our proxy Indiana Jones, there’s more fun, thrills and mystery here than the limp and pointless INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL could muster up.
Yes, the apes themselves are just men in suits (a choice forced on the production after the initial plan to use the same technology which gave us the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar had to be abandoned because the CGI couldn’t do hair convincingly) but they’re still pretty damn good, as you’d expect given the great Stan Winston designed them. Of course, nowadays we’re accustomed to pixel-perfect apes driven by sublime motion-capture performances by the likes of Andy Serkis but the gorillas of CONGO, especially Amy, are impressively realised given the limitations of the time. Speaking of Andy Serkis, you could quite easily slot the events of this film into the timeline of the recent PLANET OF THE APES saga if you wanted to, as the reintroduction into the wild of a gorilla who could talk would inevitably have had consequences.
But all good (okay, good-ish) things must come to an end and, like all joyously old-fashioned tropical adventure stories, it ends with a volcano erupting, a dilemma on whether or not to keep the plundered treasure and some last-minute feats of derring-do. In the end, everyone you expect to live does, everyone you guessed would meet a sticky end has (some stickier than others) and Amy the gorilla gets the happiest of all the endings.
Maybe my fondness for it is inherited from my enjoyment of Crichton’s novel which I’d read a few years before the film came out and borrowed just a little bit from my adoration of JURASSIC PARK but it’s hard to deny that despite its flaws, CONGO is still a rollicking, good old fashioned ripping yarn. In a funny way, it’s a film out of time: if it had been made ten years earlier, or twenty years later with better effects, it probably would have been a triumph.
Peter B September 11, 2014
For some reason Crichton’s books don’t translate well to the screen. Speilberg’s Jurassic Park is wonderful, but deviates wildly from the tone and emphasis of the novel, and kind of had to. The Thirteenth Warrior was a debacle, but the book, Eaters of the Dead was great. Rising Sun the movie was terrible, but the novel is hugely fun (despite Creighton’s failed prophesies). The Lost World movie didn’t even try, it just kept Ian Malcolm and the title. Congo is one of the few books of Creighton’s I haven’t read. Maybe I’ll pick it up, and watch the movie too.
Those gorilla suits worry me, though. Did you ever see a film called Buddy? Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter of Edward Scissorhands, directed it. It was a true story about a 1920’s socialite who kept wild animals as a hobby, and very misguidedly tried to rase an ape like a child. And it would have been absolutely wonderful if it had not been for the fact that the ape was obviously a guy in a costume.
The Craggus September 11, 2014
Was Buddy the one with Charlize Theron? I think I saw it years ago and yeah, it’s a great film but you have to accept the ‘man in a suit’ and just go with it. Congo’s the same but tries hard to avoid overusing the men in suits until it really has to.
EDIT IT ADDD: Oh wait, I was thinking of Mighty Joe Young. I think I have seen Buddy though. Man, there are a lot of gorilla movies when you start to think about it!
Peter B September 11, 2014
King Kong is still the best. I’m talking the original. But through the years Planet of the Apes has had its moments, and the last one was incredible.
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