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Mothra (1961) vs. Colossal (2016)

Because nothing says avatar of destruction like OOH!  LOOK AT THE PRETTY COLORS!
Because nothing says avatar of destruction like OOH! LOOK AT THE PRETTY COLORS!

Wow! vs. Ugh!

Posted: Nov 17, 2018 2:23 PM
Updated: Nov 17, 2018 2:59 PM

The Goldilocks lesson is one of the hardest to learn as human beings. For most of us throughout history, we get very familiar with not having enough. But the rich and famous through the ages have also shown us the problems of having too much. Whether you’re talking about money, sex, power, or anything else, it remains difficult to know how much is “just right.”

This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will consider if that dilemma also applies to imagination. Can you be too creative? What does it mean to be not creative enough? We’ll examine both situations as we two pit lesser known entries into the monster movie genre against each other. It’s “Mothra” (1961) vs. “Colossal” (2016) in a battle between the ridiculous and the not-nearly-smart-enough-to-be-sublime.

A production of Toho made before every giant monster movie they did involved either fighting or teaming up with Godzilla, “Mothra” is delightfully weird even by the standards of giant creature features. When a giant moth destroying a city is the most normal part of your motion picture, you’ve definitely crossed over into the land of odd wonders.

Damn you, product placement!

A shipwreck strands a group of Japanese sailors on an uninhabited island feared for its high radiation levels. The sailors are eventually rescued and amaze scientists by their lack of radiation poisoning and their stories about the island’s native population. Japan teams up with a country called “Rolisica,” which eventually is revealed as a stand-in for the United States of America but you’ll spend a lot of the movie wondering if it’s supposed to be Russia or somebody else, to send a research team to investigate the island.

The team is led by a Rolisican shady businessman named Nelson (Jerry Ito) who is so villainous his only hobbies must be mustache-twirling and tying young girls to railroad tracks. He evilly oversees the efforts of radiation expert Dr. Harada (Ken Uehara), linguist Shin’ichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) and stowaway reporter/Sammo Hung-wannabe “Bulldog” Fukuda (Frankie Sakai) as they arrive on the island and discover two young women (Yumi Ito and Emi Ito) that are each just a foot tall. Nelson evilly wants to evilly abduct them but he’s stopped by his Japanese team, who decide to conceal the existence of the tiny women and the rest of the natives…who are all wearing blackface so awful it would make Al Jolson blush. It honestly looks like they just smeared ash on the faces of all the extras.

However, Nelson secretly decides to evilly return to the island and evilly capture the tiny women for his evil plan to put them in a stage show and charge tickets to see them sing. Even though the “fairies,” as they’re called, appear happy to perform, their plight vexes Chujo, Fukuda, Fukuda’s spunky girl photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa) and Chujo’s fat kid brother Shinji (Masamitsu Tayama) and they determine to put a stop to it. Meanwhile, a giant egg on the island hatches and a huge caterpillar starts swim-humping its way toward Tokyo.

"GMO in peanuts!" they said.  "What could go wrong?" they said.

The monster, who frankly looks less like a caterpillar and more like what you’d get if Godzilla had too much fiber in his diet, proves impervious to Japanese weapons and the “fairies” explain that it’s Mothra, the sort-of-but-not-exactly god of their island civilization coming to bring them back home. Nelson evilly disregards the threat, of course, and the rest of the movie is Mothra smashing stuff while Chujo and company fight their way through international diplomacy and street-level thuggery to save the day. The caterpillar metamorphoses into a gaily-colored massive moth, the action travels to the Rolisican metropolis of “New Kirk City,” and it all wraps up with one of the strangest bits of Christian proselytizing you’ll ever encounter in cinema.

From not one, not two, but THREE actual musical numbers, to the random flipping from Japanese to English and back throughout the script, to the obsessive-compulsive use of models in the special effects, to a kaiju flick ending with the bad guy getting gunned down by the police, “Mothra” is a parade of hilariously engaging nonsense. What ties all the craziness together and makes it work as a motion picture is the solution they came up with to the fundamental problem all Godzilla-type films have: What do you do with the humans while the monsters are smashing everything? Using the tiny chicks as a MacGuffin for our characters to chase after is genuinely clever, which is probably why they reused this same basic plot in a bunch of other Mothra movies. If you want to introduce someone to the “Toho Universe,” I’m not sure this film isn’t a better bet than any of the Godzilla films. The black-and-white debut of the Big G in 1954 is masterful but might be too serious for viewers expecting a whacky good time.

"What nationality am I supposed to be again?  It's like I'm half-Italian, half-Polish, and half-stroke victim."

The only ones having a good time watching “Colossal” would be the Anne Hathaway completists out there who must see absolutely everything she’s in. But even those folks should be warned:

1. The film doesn’t give her much to work with.
2. She doesn’t get naked.

In a world where no one has a last name, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an out-of-work writer who gets kicked out by her fed up boyfriend (Dan Stevens) and moves back into the now-empty house where she grew up. She reconnects with and takes a job at the bar of a childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudekis), and flirts with local hunk of man-meat named Joel (Austin Stowell). It’s all entirely meh until Gloria is stunned to see news reports of a giant monster rampaging through Seoul, South Korea. Gloria is even more stunned to realize that she’s the monster. More precisely, the monster materializes in Seoul every time Gloria is on a local playground at 8:05 am and it mimics her every action while she’s there.

Forget about the giant monsters!  What they hell has attached itself to Anne Hathaway's head?

That’s all of the plot of “Colossal” I’m going to get into because the only redeeming element of this movie is the story goes in a direction you won’t expect. Other than that, it’s a gigantic waste for time for the people who made it and anyone who watches it. The basic concept is brilliant but writer/director Nacho Vigalondo fritters it away as though he doesn’t understand his own idea.
Having someone’s behavior in small town America replicated by an enormous beast half the world away could be used as an incredible metaphor for so many different things. You could get political and have it represent how Americans are ignorant of the impact on the rest of the world. You could get personal and use it to illustrate how our self-image is often more fantasy than reality. You could get therapeutic by demonstrating how seemingly inconsequential bad behaviors really do cause harm. You could get philosophical about how moral truths don’t change no matter how exaggerated the circumstances. The metaphorical possibilities are almost endless.

Unless you are Nacho Vigalondo, however, and a metaphor is just how Italian guys describe encountering a quartet: “I met-a four!” He eschews all the tempting options and uses the trans-global monstrous representation as nothing more than a plot device that’s been plopped into a shallow indie art house flick about toxic relationships. It’s like Vigalondo tried to write a screenplay inspired by an old friend of his who turned on him after Vigalondo became a successful filmmaker but without the foggiest notion of why the friendship soured, so he just crammed a sci-fi twist in to pad out the run time. As you watch it, you get a vague impression of what the personal motivations could have been but all chances for meaningful drama are short circuited by a childishly simplistic conviction that bad people do bad things because they are bad. It’s as mature and nuanced an understanding of human behavior as Mr. Evil McEvilface Nelson from “Mothra” but in a much less enjoyable context.

Seriously, is it ever a good look when you can't tell where the bangs end and the eyebrows start?

To use an old expression, “Colossal” is a stupid person’s view of what a smart movie must be like. It fails on practically every level as fiction. It doesn’t give you a reason to care about any of its characters. When the villain of the piece finally appears, it’s as if he remembered to take his “bad guy pills” that day. The ending is not only pulled out of left field but it leaves nothing actually resolved. This is a bad and pointless motion picture.

Which makes it easy to declare “Mothra” the winner of this Throwdown, which is a little hard to believe considering it’s about a GIANT FREAKIN’ MOTH but an excess of imagination at least constantly bombards you with one WTF moment after another. The inability or obstinate refusal of “Colossal” to follow up its amazing hook with anything remotely clever at all is the aggravating opposite of entertainment.

The bane of 21st century filmmaking:  Watching people on the big screen watching things on smaller screens.

Mothra (1961)
Written by Shin’ichi Sekizawa.
Directed by Ishiro Honda.
Starring Furanki Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, Yumi Ito, Emi Ito, Jerry Ito, Ken Uehara, Takashi Shimura, Mitsuo Tsuda, and Masamitsu Tayama.

Colossal (2016)
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo.
Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudekis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Hannah Cheramy, and Nathan Ellison.

"What do you mean I can't get an audition for Catwoman in the next Justice League flick?"

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