King Kong
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After completing The Lord of the Rings trilogy and winning multiple Academy Awards, Peter Jackson could likely have made just about any movie he wanted. He chose to remake one of the all-time great movies, King Kong.

The 1933 version by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack isn't great because of snappy dialogue or great acting (both are adequate, at best). And it isn't great because of beautiful pictorial compositions and evocative lighting (as might be said of Bride of Frankenstein, for example). No, King Kong stands as one of the great works of American cinema primarily for two reasons: 1) it contains brilliant stop-motion photography that would remain state-of-the-art for decades to come and 2) it tells arguably the greatest adventure story in the history of cinema. But King Kong is far from a perfect movie. The early scenes, before the adventure/filmmaking expedition reaches Skull Island, are frequently creaky; and Fay Wray isn't given much of a character to work with, so she spends much of the movie simply playing the damsel in distress. But the movie's weaknesses are made insignificant by the way the movie lets us witness a thrilling journey into uncharted territory, where anything might exist, where the only limits are those of imagination.

Peter Jackson must have seen the potential here for updating the movie's female character and unleashing modern computer-generated effects on Skull Island's plentiful mega creatures. Of course, Dino De Laurentiis updated this same story in 1976 and found audiences none-too-thrilled with the results. By updating the ape/girl relationship so that the sexual undercurrents were pulled to the forefront, the movie belabored the obvious and acquired the pallor of cheap opportunism.

The good news is Jackson completely avoids the pitfalls that snared De Laurentiis. Jackson's movie stumbles over a few obstacles of its own devise, but in general Jackson's King Kong is an intelligent and respectful adaptation that shows great fondness for the original film while also building further complexities into the yarn.

Most noticeably the new Ann Darrow is no scream queen. She's a woman of strength and integrity. In the movie's opening scenes, she is reduced to flinching an apple from a fruit stand (as in the original movie), but here Jackson takes pains to introduce us to her immediate situation: she's an actress and vaudeville entertainer who hasn't had a decent meal in several days. Out of work, she nearly turns to the world of burlesque (and most likely prostitution) as a means of survival, but we see her reject this possibility (as she crumples the business card of the stage producer who recommended this career change). Most significantly, though, Ann's relationship with Kong is given much greater depth. She isn't exactly happy about being carried away by the hairy brute, but she soon learns that on Skull Island she has no better protector than Kong. And with that knowledge, Kong begins to acquire her respect.

Whereas Di Laurentiis' version focused on bringing the sexual subtleties to the forefront, Jackson is interested in the dynamics of the captive/captor relationship. Ann sees Kong put his life on the line several times in order to protect her. In the process, she learns to not only respect Kong's pre-eminent position on the island but to appreciate him as a sensitive creature (relatively speaking) who can appreciate beauty (as when he shares a sunrise with Ann). He might be a brute, but compared to the island's carnivorous dinosaurs (as well as the ugly capitalist/filmmaker Carl Denham), he's a model of sophistication. His only real competition for her heart is playwright Jack Driscoll, who leads the effort to find her after the Skull Islanders (looking like Evil Dead-inspired dregs of humanity) capture and offer her as sacrifice to Kong. Driscoll is smitten by her beauty and intelligence, and thus eagerly puts his own life in immediate peril in order to rescue her. (Driscoll is contrasted with matinee idol Bruce Baxter, who quickly argues for giving up the search, and Carl Denham, who only sees the quest to find Ann as an opportunity for shooting film that will make him rich and famous.)

The Ann/Kong relationship eventually acquires something akin to love, while it sidesteps intimations of lust. Jackson's Kong is lonely for a companion, but not necessarily a mate. As the movie suggests, Kong is likely the last survivor of a species of giant ape, and as the scars on his face and torso attest, he's been fending alone for many years. It seems dinosaurs aren't much for making small talk. So Ann is most welcome, and she surprises him with her strength of character and her determination. (She little resembles Fay Wray's Ann Darrow, who is always terrified of Kong.)

The original King Kong was all about the great ape. Ann existed mainly as someone to be imperiled. Meanwhile, Carl Denham served as the means of getting Ann to Skull Island and Jack Driscoll served as the perfunctory romantic interest. Now in Jackson's revision, Kong has some competition for the spotlight. (Denham is still mostly hot air; however, Driscoll's turn as a hero acquires some unexpected irony.) And this competition gives the movie added dramatic weight that doesn't detract from the adventure story.

Meanwhile, on the debit side, Jackson's vision allows the gigantism of Skull Island to occasionally take root in the filmmaking. As a result, the running time of the original King Kong (100 minutes) is nearly doubled (at three hours) by Jackson. Unfortunately, some of that running time gets devoted to irrelevant subplots, such as the relationship between a ship officer and the unruly boy who idolizes him. But more importantly, Jackson allows the gigantism to inform the filmmaking choices he makes on Skull Island. Why one tyrannosaurus rex when you can have three? Why one brontosaurus (apatosaurus) when you can have a whole herd? Why have Kong fight on the ground when the battle can take to the air on vines? Why a single pterodactyl when you can have scores of huge vampire bat-like creatures? Multiplying every encounter in terms of participants and the actions they take has the result of pushing the movie toward absurdity. It's as if Jackson feels he must outdo Jurassic Park.

At the same time, however, Jackson shows clear fondness for the original King Kong. The screenplay (written by Jackson along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who also co-wrote Lord of the Rings) even uses a smattering of dialogue culled directly from the original screenplay. The biggest applause during the screening I witnessed came in a very familiar moment, when Jackson directly quotes the original movie after Kong breaks the jaws of a tyrannosaurus rex. What does Kong do? He works the dead T-Rex's jaws as if it's a broken toy. Yes, a herd of stampeding dinosaurs can be impressive, but it can also be overkill for it's frequently the quieter moments, when we learn about the characters, that the movie most surprises or thrills us.

Jackson's King Kong is still a horribly sad movie. Kong certainly doesn't deserve what happens to him. Here it's even more perverse as the Kong stage show in New York is enhanced with dancing natives (looking remarkably like the Skull Islanders from the original movie) who cavort at the feet of Kong, who is drugged into stupor. We want Kong to breakaway but we also fully realize the hopelessness of the situation. We know where the story is going and nothing can save Kong. So it's more a matter of how the story arrives at its conclusion, and here is where Jackson succeeds best, drawing upon the Ann/Kong relationship that he carefully built during the Skull Island scenes. That's all I can say on this point without giving too much away.

Naomi Watts' performance as Ann Darrow vies for importance with the computer generated creations. She delivers a strong performance. She is beautiful, sexy, resourceful, and intelligent (sometimes all in the same scene). Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in Lord of the Rings) gives a marvelous interpretation of Kong, with his presence and actions enhanced by computer graphics. Jack Black goes way over the top in his performance as Carl Denham, as he chews the scenery at every opportunity. And Adrien Brody has the unenviable task of playing the hardly credible Jack Driscoll. When Driscoll is essentially kidnapped to be part of Denham's filmmaking crew, the screenplay gives Brody nothing to work with. So Driscoll merely accepts the situation, looking like a limp noodle in the process.

Even with its inconsistencies, King Kong is still a strong movie. Jackson and his special effects crew (including senior visual effect supervisor Joe Letteri, creatures/miniatures supervisor Richard Taylor, and production designer Grant Major) have created a fascinating Skull Island. Laced with centuries-old stairways and temples, the island is a mysterious and lethal environment. While in Jurassic Park we know the explanations behind the existence of the creatures, there are no explanations in King Kong, and that makes the island all the more intriguing.

Of course, the special effects technology in this remake far surpasses the work of the great Willis O'Brien in the original King Kong. But the original creations still have tremendous charm because so much care and work went into characterizing Kong. He wasn't just a stop-motion puppet; audiences really believed in him (even if the moving ripples in his fur frequently give away his status) and cried when he met his fate. Jackson's King Kong is still in the shadow of the original, but I think that's where Jackson wants it to be. His love of the original movie comes through strongly; not as if his attempting to replace the original, but instead as an elaboration on the original theme.

On a side note, fans of the original King Kong will enjoy seeing Jackson's version of the spider-pit sequence. Long lost from the original King Kong (although Jackson recreated the sequence as an extra for the recent Warner Home Video DVD release), this sequence, which was likely removed from King Kong after its initial screening, has been re-envisioned by Jackson in genuinely harrowing terms. Cooper and Schoedsack removed the spider-pit sequence from the original King Kong because they felt it brought the movie to a halt. Strangely enough, even though Jackson's spider-pit sequence is fun to watch, it too brings the movie to a halt.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: King Kong



Photos: © 2005 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.