It goes without saying that when people show up to watch King Kong, or Godzilla, or King Kong vs. Godzilla, they’re there to see big monsters wreak havoc. Sometimes there are interesting human stories, but they mostly serve to frame those giant monsters we love so much. And that’s the first mistake that Skull Island, an animated spinoff on Netflix, makes: for most of the first season, the story is focused almost entirely on people. The second? Those people are almost uniformly annoying and chatty. The show turns things around by the end, but to get there, you’ll have to withstand a nonstop barrage of quips and one-liners.
As the name implies, Skull Island takes place on... Skull Island, home of King Kong. There are a few different groups on the island. There’s a crew of researchers who wash up on shore following a run-in with a mysterious sea monster, and they join a well-equipped military group doing whatever it is military groups do on islands full of monsters. There’s also Annie, a teenage girl who has been surviving on Skull Island for years after being shipwrecked as a child. She is a deceptively adept killer, and she’s best friends with a giant muscled dog named Dog.
The island is actually a pretty fascinating place, particularly if you love a good monster. The characters are constantly faced with new and fascinating creatures. There are giant crabs hiding under the sandy beach, a boulder that turns out to be a bug, and a number of things that are basically pokémon: a grass cat not named Sprigatito and a turtle with aloe growing out of its back. At one point, there’s a tree made up of actual monsters. It’s just as deadly as you’d hope, and the designers did a great job of coming up with inventive new beasts (even if the ecology of the island probably doesn’t make much sense). They complement Kong, who spends much of the show lurking in the background, quite well.
Unfortunately, for the first six episodes, this unique and fascinating world is made tedious by all of the people. Everyone — from the lost explorers and the feral teen killer to the armed soldiers — feels the need to joke about everything. I’m all for some humor, particularly for a premise as silly as “long-lost island home to giant monkey and buff crocs.” But it’s overwhelming here. Just to give you a sense of the dialogue, at one point, someone’s sword breaks, and they exclaim, “Stabby no worky.”
What makes matters worse is that there is actually a great story buried underneath all of the blithe chatter. The penultimate episode puts the focus squarely on Kong, delving into an important — and heartbreaking — part of his past. It has one human character, and she’s relatable, likable, and doesn’t make a joke every other sentence. Shockingly, this makes for much better television. That episode also sets up a great conclusion that includes a particularly vicious kaiju battle with a big bad that is slowly revealed over the course of the season. It’s like a good Kong movie boiled down to two animated TV episodes.
It’s the rest of the season that’s a problem. Good worldbuilding isn’t enough to overshadow the obnoxious dialogue and unlikable characters. In a normal kaiju movie, they’re easy to look past because most of the attention is on the big fellas. But here, the humans are the main focus for six entire episodes, relegating the most interesting parts of the show to the background. And Kong is too big for that.
Skull Island is streaming on Netflix now.