Skull Island is the latest entry in the MonsterVerse, and the first foray of Legendary studios in turning their billion dollar film franchise into a series for smaller screens. With Apple’s Monarch leading the charge on the live action front, it seems Netflix chose to differentiate their tale within the MonsterVerse by bestowing the series into the hands of the talented animators of Powerhouse Animation Studios, best known for animating the incredible Castlevania (2017-2021). Coupled with Brian Duffield, whose past work includes Love and Monsters (2020) and Underwater (2020), Skull Island proves a solid, (if flawed) first blow, thrown by the streaming giants with the IP.
Set in the 1990s, Skull Island tells a tale that anyone familiar with the King Kong Franchise would be familiar with. A group in pursuit of proof that legendary creatures do exist find themselves trapped on the mythical Skull Island. Suffering losses during the adventure of a lifetime, the shipwrecked and scattered group search for each other, answers, and an escape off their kaiju-laden paradise. Throw in a hostile armed group, a mysterious girl, a large helping of hostile inhabitants, and the titular guardian of the island – Kong – and you have the basic set pieces for the eight-episode series.
While I won’t go into spoilers for this review, the above premise is the weakest aspect of the show. Like the Jurassic Park franchise, there are only so many times a group can be trapped on an island without the concept feeling stale. Here, I will say Episodes One, Two, Seven and Eight are engaging, and weave interesting ideas or set pieces into the mix, but I couldn’t help but feel the pace and my interest take a noticeable plunge during most of the show’s second act.
As for the writing, this proves to be a weaker entry for Brian Duffield’s portfolio. Basic dialogue, exposition or banter works well enough, but a lack of detail seems apparent when the action is not front and center. For instance, if not for an explicit time reference or a general lack of phones, characters seem more modern than those found within the 1990s. While I don’t need an abundance of radical references, Kong’s 2017 entry weaved themes integral to the time period with fantastic results. I only wish the same had been done here.
This is not to say the writing is bad, as I did feel emotional moments, character decisions and jokes did land more so than they missed, but I feel my biggest criticism is that some swings were never taken. As mentioned above, there are interesting concepts and ideas within Skull Island. While overstuffing your creation with detail or exposition can become a hinderance to the enjoyment of the show like in Godzilla Singular Point (2021), a lack of interesting ideas, set pieces, or memorable creature design can make your work feel hollower and more unoriginal.
Thankfully with those criticisms aside, I can start administering some well-deserved praise upon the people that do make this show work, mainly the talented voice cast and the animators. Starting with the latter, while not as jaw dropping as their work with Castlevania (2017-2021), inspiring work was clearly done to bring Skull Island to life. From the characters to the kaiju to the new locals upon the island and innovative chase sequences, the team at Powerhouse Animation Studios should be proud of their creation. While the more simplistic design of some inhabitants isn’t going to inspire a series of S.H. MonsterArts figures, they do facilitate fantastic action sequences when the script demands it of them. I would say notable standouts include Kong, a certain agile crocodilian, the “big-bad”, a certain aerial ally of the titular guardian, and the mysterious girl’s “dog”.
Now to the voice actors, while I can’t say I enjoyed every character in the show, no actor gave a poor performance. Everyone seemed to be giving their roles, and the material presented to them, their best effort, and for those that went the extra mile (or were at least allowed to by the script) I can say the effort did not go unnoticed. Darren Barnet, Mae Whitman and Betty Gilpin proved stellar in their roles and hopefully, if there is a second season, we can see more of their characters going forward.
Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) were all released to positive or mixed reception, and Skull Island keeps that trend going for the MonsterVerse. While the bones of this show are narratively thin, the spectacular animation, fun character voice work, interesting set pieces and thrilling conclusion leaves me excited for the prospects of this series’ future. If Netflix does renew Skull Island for a second season, the foundation for a great show has been laid. Here’s hoping those monstrous hopes don’t prove hollow.