After 29 years, Peter Jackson has finally delivered on Dino De Laurentiis‘ promise. Before the release of his 1976 remake, De Laurentiis famously said, “When Jaws die, nobody cry. When my Kong die, everybody gonna cry.” Well, nobody cried in 1976, except maybe the film’s financial backers.
Audiences, on the other hand, snickered, chortled and guffawed at the cheesy effects and a leading lady who played the brainless ditz a little too well. The fact that Jessica Lange‘s career survived that film, let alone that she went on to be highly respected, is a testament to her talent.
2005 brings Peter Jackson’s 3 hour remake/homage to Merian C. Cooper‘s 1933 classic. In a lot of ways, it’s even more overblown and self-indulgent than De Laurentiis’ fiasco, but who cares? This Kong works.
This version tells basically the same story as the original. An unscrupulous filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black), sails to an uncharted South Sea island, bringing along a down-on-her-luck actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). The natives on the island kidnap her as a sacrifice to their god, a 25-foot gorilla known as Kong. Rather than have her as a snack, the big ape develops a curious fascination/infatuation with his prize. Meanwhile, the crew of the ship attempts to rescue Ann, meeting any number of grisly fates at the hands/claws/teeth of the island’s prehistoric fauna. Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), Kong’s rival for Ann’s affection, manages to rescues her. An enraged Kong pursues until he is trapped and taken back to New York City to be put on display. He breaks free and rampages across the city before being cornered by airplanes at the top of Empire State Building.
The adjustments that Jackson makes adds a level of texture and depth that justifies the elephantine running time. Carl Denham in no longer simply the comic blowhard from the first movie, but a more obsessive, self-centered and sinister character. As recreated on a back lot in New Zealand, 1933 New York is teeming with Depression-era resentment. Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) has a more adversarial and believable relationship with Denham. Jack Driscoll is no longer the rugged and chauvanistic first mate but a screenwriter duped into joining the voyage at the last moment.
The natives of Kong’s Skull Island are no longer the embarrassingly anachronistic minstrel show of 1933 but a more frightening and feral bunch, sort of the Dawn of the Dead road company of The Lion King.
The most significant change is bringing the character of Ann front and center and making Naomi Watts the star of the film. The arc of her relationship with Kong drives this movie, first with her as his terrified captive and then placing herself willingly under his protection from the rest of Skull Island’s predators. Finally, at the very end, she almost becomes his protector, placing herself in harm’s way in a vain attempt to shield him from the weapons of frightened men.
Naomi Watts delivers pure magic in her performance as her eyes allow us to see Kong as the proud and intelligent creature under the roaring beast. Andy Serkis‘ performance as Kong, translated into CGI via motion capture, matches her note for note. Even without words, Kong is every bit as dimensional a character as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Eventually, the Academy is going to have to create a category for Best Captured Performance and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Serkis take home the first one.
The film begins a bit slowly in New York but it helps firmly establish Ann’s desperate situation in the midst of the Depression. The plot takes off like it was shot from a cannon once it reaches Skull Island. From this point forward, King Kong compares favorably to a film with which I’m reluctant to compare any film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The battle between Kong and three T-Rexes is simply one of the most kinetic, exciting sequences ever committed to film.
Skull Island itself is a fantastic creation, depicted with a heightened reality that seems to harken back to the tabletop jungle sets of the 1933 original. It’s not what I’d call “realistic” but it’s rarely unconvincing on its level.
New York City in 1933 is also recreated in great detail, even if it does seem to be shot through a gauze filter that romanticizes even the “Hooverville” scenes. The fight on the top of the Empire State Building eclipses the original as Serkis’ Kong leaps past the restrictions of Willis O’Brien‘s stop-motion miniatures. And when the big ape finally topples to his doom, you might not cry, but you’re a hard, cold, cynical bastard if you don’t at least feel something.
Video Release Update (April 3, 2006)
Now that it’s hit the video shelves, King Kong has been cemented in box office history as a hugely profitable failure. Its half-billion dollar take was a huge disappointment compared to the desperately unrealistic hopes of a movie industry still reeling from a year of disappointments. Kong was supposed to ride in on a white horse and single-handedly rescue 2005 with a gross that would make Titanic look like Heaven’s Gate. I guess that was too much too expect for one film. Either that or the white horse just collapsed under the weight of the 25-foot gorilla on its back.
Also, the “too-cool-for-the-room” crowd has also turned on the film like a ravenous T-Rex. Despite a healthy 84% rating at Rottentomatoes.com, the internet discussion board wags would have us believe that Peter Jackson’s remake was a self-indulgent turkey that totally evaporated the good-will generated by the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Let me be the first to concede that King Kong was a film that cried out to be shorter. The 1933 film told almost exactly the same story in an economical 100 minutes, while this version required an extra 80 minutes to get the job done. If the original version was a spare Model T of a movie, 2005’s Kong was a Cadillac Escalade with pimped-out rims and an 80,000-watt sound system. It’s loud, flashy and just too damn big.