KING KONG (1933) jjjj

1933, no MPAA rating, 115 mins.

 

Faye Wray: Ann Darrow / Robert Armstrong: Carl Denham / Bruce Cabot: Jack Driscoll

 

Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack /  Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose / Based on a story concept by Cooper and Edgar Wallace

 
 

"Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."

- Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) - KING KONG (1933)

Conventional movie wisdom would dictate that the original film in George Lucas’ STAR WARS sextet is the most imperative and important special effects film of all-time.  There's no denying that film’s incredible influence at dictating the type of films that would be made nearly 30 years in its wake during the post-modern period of cinematic history.  Yet, there have been other significant visual effects pictures, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which predates STAR WARS by nearly a decade.  Even films like CITIZEN KANE – easily the most seminal film of its time, if not in film history as whole – and early fantasies like THE WIZARD OF OZ incorporated a considerable amount of on-screen trickery. 

Yet, when all is said and done, the original 1933 KING KONG – it could be easily argued – is the granddaddy of all of the aforementioned films.  Countless other movies would come in future decades that would inspire in their viewers a sense of endless wonder and awe in their sights, but KONG was the first to truly draw our eyes to the silver screen and respond with stunned disbelief at its magical, on-screen illusionary power.  Despite its age, it still stirs our imagination.

Okay, KING KONG is not a great film like - say - CITIZEN KANE, or even STAR WARS for that matter.  No, its endlessly transcending allure and status in the hearts of filmgoers and historians lies with the fact that it was one of the first films to demonstrate a sort of undying realm of imagination, artistic creativity, and ingenuity with how the cinema could be used.   STAR WARS begged its viewers to drink it its audio-visual palette and become enthralled in the incredible sophistication of its attractions.  KONG works similarly – perhaps even on a larger level if one considers the period of its release.  There was nothing that predated KONG that dared to demonstrate the limitless potential of the medium.  In hindsight, KONG must have been an absolutely mesmerizing and spellbinding achievement.  Calling it the STAR WARS of its time is a bit of a misnomer.  Lucas 1977 film dared to take what people then believed was the upper echelon of filmmaking technology and then topped it.  KONG, on the other hand, marked the beginnings of the marriage of innovative and intricate special effects with live action.  That, in itself, is an unparalleled accomplishment.

KONG is many things.  Yes, it’s a monster movie by traditional standards.  It’s also a full-throttle action picture, a thriller, a horror film, and most crucially, an offbeat love story and modern morality fable.  It did what even many modern films of the ghastly grotesque have failed to do – it was a film about a dangerous creature battling humanity that actually had a heart to it.  KONG is a film that has humility and humanity to it, often in regards to the creature itself.  The same cannot be said for the films that it obviously inspired.  KONG was made well before other monster films where the creatures fought man and were despicable, vile, and evil.  The extraterrestrials of Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s ALIEN films massacred humanity chiefly because they occupied the same plane of existence.  Even Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK – perhaps the most clear-cut and modern descendant of KONG’s legacy – had prehistoric beasts that cheerfully wanted to eat all humans in their sights.

KONG, by comparison, is one of the few sympathetic beasts of the cinema.  He is a gigantic monster, truth be told, but he attacks only when provoked and often to protect his new “love.”  When he's captured, chained up, and taken to The Big Apple to be a tourist attraction as part of a slimy scheme of a Hollywood player, there is no denying that the film has a layer of subtext to it that is not otherwise noted.  The greed of the corporate and cinematic world and the shameful and sick curiosity of the American public for sideshow theatrics is what unleashes the fury in Kong.  That’s why the film is strangely moving and tragic in surprising ways.  We want to root for the human characters, but instead we feel pity, remorse, and regret when KONG’s demise is at their hands.  If they only left him alone in the jungle. 

Of course, we all know the film's climax. during which Kong climbs to the top of the Empire States Building and is ruthlessly gunned down by bi-planes.  The conclusion of the film remains to be one of a small handful of the great moments of the movies and it only further highlights the unbounded creativity and craftsmanship that went into it.  KONG has not aged well, per se, in the special effects department, or even on a story or acting level for that matter (the dialogue and performances often border on the laughably awful and then cross the border).  Yet, the key to appreciate KONG – like many other classic works of the past – is to watch it in context.  Surely, the effects of the film lack the utter sophistication, polish, and visual veracity of the T-Rexes of JURASSIC PARK. 

However, that’s not the point.  When you view Spielberg’s dinosaurs they are impressive in their scope and realism, but there’s no real magic to them.  KONG is not a realistic film effect; he’s an imaginative one, created by artisans who – at the time – had never attempted an escapist fantasy on the scale and level of this film.  This KONG creature creates a sort of ethereal sense of stupefaction.  We are thrilled not at its realism, but rather by the creative energy and ceaseless resourcefulness that went into him.  Much like the recent claymation feature – WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT – Kong in the film does not have the technical brilliance and sheen of its later CGI counterparts.  Instead, his crude, archaic, and shifty movements command a kind of surreal allure.  That’s the point of this film, in 1933 and even today.

As for the actual plot of KONG, it's fairly simple and straightforward, which may or may not be a plus for a monster film like this.  Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is trying to get a film crew together to make his newest cinematic epic for the masses.  He searches the streets of New York for a new leading lady, which seems to be what the public wants in pictures.  He comes across a street beauty named Ann Darrow (immortalized by the late, great Fay Wray, in her most memorable film role).  Needless to say, Denham takes Ann on board his ship along with a handsome young sailor named Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and they head off to the mysterious and ominous Skull Island.  Why go to a strange and uncharted island that no one’s been to?  Well, for starters, it would be great for location shooting!

Trouble soon emerges in the form of a local tribe of natives that appear to be religious zealots of some kind, not to mention offensive stereotypes of African savages that could offend more than one modern viewer.  Anyways, these natives seem to want Denham’s leading lady as a sacrificial price to their “God” of sorts.  When Denham and company refuse, the natives sneak aboard their ship at night, snatch poor Ann, and offer her to her new “groom” in the form of a 25-foot-tall ape named Kong.  Kong takes his new prize and heads into the deep and dark jungle, with Denham, Jack, and company hot on their trails.  All proverbial hell breaks loose and Kong goes, vulgarity aside, completely ape-shit when some puny men try to steal his new main squeeze.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of KONG – especially to modern eyes – is in its dialogue, acting, and clunky exposition.  The film lumbers around for the first half hour or so until it gets to the real meat n’ potatoes of the plot.  The dialogue is about as ham-infested and silly and has the emotional depth and resonation of a porn movie.  Some of the howlers include, "Some big, hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang! - he cracks up and goes sappy."  Equally vexing and inane is the painfully artificial and manufactured love story between Jack and Ann, during which he professes his true feelings to her with an awkwardness that may not have been equaled since.  During one particularly terrible exchange between the two, Jack tells her, “Hey…I think I love you,” to which incredulous groans and chuckles were sure to be elicited by the audience.  The jungle natives themselves, all black and the victim of a lack of the PC police in 1933 Hollywood, are racist portrayals to their core, as is Charlie, the resident Chinese cook on the ship who speaks with "me" preceding every sentence where "I" would have sufficed.

However, when Ann is put on that altar and is taken by Kong, the film never lets go for a second and has a break-neck pace of tension and action.  Considering the sheer limits of special effects magic on the early 1930’s, it’s remarkable how brave, daring, and inventive the film’s technicians were in their outpouring of originality.  There seems to be nothing left on the drawing board for this film that intimidated these wizards to attempt at amazing the audiences of the time.  Just consider the scope and magnitude of the scenes with Kong.  We don’t just get him running around with Ann, but we see he fight not only a T-Rex (still a brilliantly realized scene), but he also fights a pterodactyl, a giant snake, and later - if that was not enough - he wreaks absolute havoc in downtown New York where he overturns elevated trains, climbs one famous building, and swats away gun-equipped airplanes like they were flies.  The fact that the filmmakers - during the unconditional infancy of large scale visual effects in the cinema - felt they could even attempt these types of moments on celluloid is kind of astonishing.

Full credit has to go to a few people.  Firstly, there were directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Scheodsack and producer David O. Selzick, all of whom had a collective vision of what this film could be and saw it through to fruition.  Perhaps the real marvel and hero of the film is undoubtedly Willis O’Brien, who alone invented the art of stop-motion animation, which would later become one of many key tools in the utility belts of modern special effects creators.  O’Brien previously utilized many of the same tricks he used in KONG in the 1925 fantasy THE LOST WORLD, but he reached his zenith in terms of sophistication and mastery with KONG. 

To closely scrutinize KONG is to see just how many tricks O’Brien used – miniatures, stop motion animation, matte paintings, rear projection, models, stock footage, and a tremendous amount of slight of hand on his part.  Many of these techniques can often be seen in single shots alone.  KONG can still be appreciated for the fact that it does not shy away from daring to be bold.  It does not cut away when convincing effects can’t be achieved.  Instead, O’Brien and company go in head-on and go for broke.  Beyond his gutsy maneuvering, there is a sort of nifty subtlety to how Kong is conceived in some scenes.  After he defeats and kills the T-rex, O’Brian goes out of his way to animate Kong playing with the dinosaur’s broken jaw, much like a child with a damaged toy.  It’s a small and nuanced moments like that one that even modern computer effects artists seem to miss.

KONG’s effects, from a fiduciary standpoint, also prove to be incredible.  The film cost RKO Pictures the then small sum of $600,000 and the production schedule along predicated that the film wrap in a short period of time.   Anyone that is even moderately aware the laborious process of animated stop motion puppets will easily surmise that KONG was a near Herculean effort in retrospect.  Whereas other films later would achieve similar scenes in weeks, the creators of KONG only had days.  The final product, as a result, shows unbelievable showmanship and perseverance by its artisans.

KONG was more than just a visual effects watershed picture.  This was also the first film to be creative with sound design.  Many of the film’s sounds were manufactured (Kong’s growls and cries were actually a lion’s and tiger’s roars played together and the run backwards).  KONG ushered in future films that relied heavily of innovative sound design (most modern blockbusters use ingenious sound design of some kind today).  KONG also was a film to make use of a strong, symphonic score for the first time in the cinema, with individual motifs for characters, including KONG himself.  Watching the film it’s easy to disregard and forget the film’s music as one of the all-time great and memorable scores.  Pay close attention to smaller scenes where the score plays in tune with various corresponding actions on screen.  This was new for 1933, and later masterful composers obviously took note. 

KONG, maybe more than any other fantasy film since, was a large victim of film censorship from the time of its release.  Many scenes went to the cutting room floor after initial audience screenings in 1933.  The original version was released four times between 1933 and 1952 and each time the Hollywood censors (remember, this is before the MPAA) stung the film with cuts and edits.  When the film was restored in 1971 many of these outtakes were faithfully (and thankfully) restored, such as one creepy sequence where Kong removes some of Ann’s clothing and sniffs them, as well as a handful of moments where Kong and dinosaurs kill their human pursuers. 

One segment has forever been lost, the infamous “Spider Pit Sequence”, which aired once theatrically and was cut immediately by Cooper himself because it literally scared audiences out of the theatre.  The scene involved Kong shaking some men off of a giant log to which they later fall into a pit populated by a giant spider and other insects.  In the recent DVD Special Edition of the film, Peter Jackson – a self-professed Kong-aholic and director of the 2005 remake, - used the effects artists at Weta Workshop to employ 1933 technology to faithfully recreate this lost scene.  This newly shot scene and the tingles it generates for all KONG fans is – for lack of better words - undeniably cool.

Maybe the largest aspect that's often disregarded when looking at KONG is the message it forges that is often buried underneath its revolutionary effects.  The ending of KONG just may rank with some of the greatest that the cinema has to offer, with the beast breaking free of his shackles, reclaiming Ann, climbing to the top of the Empire States Building, only to be gunned down to his death.  Watching Kong swipe with pathetic futility at the planes is kind of sad, stirring, and poignant.  On Skull Island he was a creature to be fearfully revered.  His stature in Manhattan is kind of the same, but different.  He's still a monster to be feared, but he definitely is not a king in New York.  The fact that he is machined gunned down by bi-planes packs an emotional and socio-political wallop.  Nature has been conquered, yet again, by man-made industry.  Maybe this further heightens the audience’s strange and paradoxical sympathy for Kong when he is killed.  In the height of Depression-era America, nothing would have been more entertaining than to see a monster run amok and go berserk in the capitalist heart of the U.S..  When he is shot to death, it’s kind of a strangely moving moment.

Peter Jackson, in a recent interview, claimed that no other film in the history of the medium has influenced more people to want to become filmmakers than the original KING KONG.  There's definitive credence to that claim.  Certainly, the 1933 original KONG was the first pure, escapist fantasy that captured peoples’ imagination with its innovations when no other filmed dared to.  If you follow the film’s legacy forward, men by the names of Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, and Jackson owe the livelihoods and vitality of their epic escapist creations to KONG.  The true mystique of the film lies not in how well it works today as an all-encompassing entertainment spectacle.  No, the key to this film’s inclusion on a list of cinema’s greatest films is in how it changed the industry and spawned a genre that's still popular to contemporary eyes.   To 2005 viewers, Kong the monster may appear choppy and doesn't look real, but he has an ageless vivacity that modern CGI inventions will never attain.

 
 

KING KONG (1976) jjj

1976, PG, 135 mins.

 

Jeff Bridges: Jack Prescott / Jessica Lange: Dwan / Charles Grodin: Jack Wilson / John Randolph: Captain Ross / Rick Baker: Kong

 

Directed by John Guillermin / Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. /

Based on the original screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose

 
 

 “There is a girl out there who might be running for her life from some gigantic turned-on ape!”

- Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) - KING KONG (1976)

That one line alone sums up the overall vibe and tone of the then monumentally expensive, big-budget remake of the original 1933 KING KONG.  This self-addressed “most exciting original motion picture event of all time” sure seems, in hindsight, like a wild and excruciating exercise in hyperbolic advertising.  After all, if one considers the incredibly loyal fan base to Merian C. Cooper's classic 1933 film, Dino De Laurentiis' gigantic re-imagining of the classic tale seemed to definitely have some large shoes to fill. 

Time has not been overly pleasant to this remake and it – most certainly – doesn't even remotely rekindle the magic and sense of awe that the 1930’s audiences must have had when they saw the first glimpses of that giant gorilla battling it out with bi-planes on top of the Empire States Building.  The 1976 KING KONG is not really magical or enticing at all, unless you find a giant creature that is obviously a man in a suit magical. 

There's not one iota of suspension of disbelief in terms of the spectacle in this remake’s interpretation of KONG as a monster.  It becomes very clear that, within the first few seconds of seeing this beast in the film, that even 1976 viewers must have be conscious of the fact that it was a performer (in this case, make-up man Rick Baker) in a big suit, ala GODZILLA.  Oh sure, the advance marketing of the film promised endless, spin-tingling spectacle, but history has demonstrated that notion to be a bad case of fraudulent promoting.  I guess that in terms of the modern advances of special effects wizardry of the time (remember, this is pre-STAR WARS Hollywood), the idea of a man in a suit worked okay in principle. 

Yet, when the mighty marketing juggernaut at Paramount Pictures took great pains to tell us that Carlo Rambaldi (who would later make E.T.) would be manufacturing an actual, 50 foot tall mechanical ape for filming, I'm sure that interest peaked for the film.  Unfortunately for Rambaldi, the ape machine proved to be far too expensive for the film’s $24 million budget (a lot if you consider STAR WARS cost - only one year later - $11 million), Baker swooped in with his ape suit.  This was probably for the best.  The only few miniscule seconds that the actual life size monster prop does make an appearance it’s such a jaw-dropping and scornful piece of make-believe that even Ed Wood would have blushed if he saw it.

Okay, but maybe the film’s lack of a follow-through in terms of it promising unsurpassed spectacle is not be the point.  If there was ever a film that demands its viewers – both then and now – to watch the film through a specific set of lenses then it surely is this one.  This KING KONG will clearly offend purists of the original 1933 version.  It just does not have the enchanting sense of wonder and excitement, nor does it demonstrate the same level of marvel and labor intensive craftsmanship that the original one had.  Revisiting the KONG '76 it becomes apparent that the original’s visuals – despite predating its remake by 50 plus years – actually looks better, pound for pound, for its time.  Yet, this should not compel people to slam this version with a disdainful amount of incredulity and spiteful ridicule.  This updated KING KONG for the 70’s is kind of funny, smart, satirical, and campy in ways that many may not have expected.

KONG '76 is not bad in an offensive kind of way.  It’s bad in pleasant, offbeat, and wickedly entertaining ways.  This KONG has a sort of breezy, simple-minded, and exuberant spirit to it.  Yes, at times it is gut-wrenchingly mediocre, but other times it makes up for its undeniable faults in other, subtler areas.  This new KONG was not so much the thrilling monster/horror picture that was the original, nor does it attempt to simply regurgitate the original's story, characters, and overall mood.  No, this KONG is relentlessly and unapologetically tongue in cheek, perhaps so much so that its tongue ruptures the cheek that it resides in. 

Not only that, but the film has an undeniable sense of playful, self-intended camp value.  The film’s screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and if you look at his pre and post KING KONG scripts it’s evident why the film works on certain levels.  Semple wrote many of the original BATMAN TV series stories, which were small masterpieces of self-referential wit and sarcastic, satirical comedy.  For what they were – love them or hate them – those BATMAN shows were enormously funny and entertaining.  Semple would also write the 1980 FLASH GORDON, now revered as a sure-fire camp, comedy classic.

KONG '76 works, at times, much like BATMAN and FLASH GORDON.  Semple’s script is observably pure cornball from beginning to end and his penchant for placing the film in the geo-political period of the 70’s (it was not to be a 1930’s period piece, as is Peter Jackson’s 2005 KONG) hits many high notes for great hilarity.  Greatly assisting his script is the support by the actors, some of which grew to later regret their participation in the film.  Yet, their performances breathe with a certain respectable level of fun and whimsy and they certainly don't think they are making a galactic opus or epic love story.  The actors engage in a great deal of mannered, over-the-top hamming it up, which is to their credit.  I mean, when the then newcomer Jessica Lang screams at her ape captor, “You Goddamn chauvinist pig ape,” I mean…you just have to go with it.  That, of course, pales in comparison to my personal favorite exchange in the film:

Jack Prescott:

Even an environmental rapist like you wouldn't be asshole enough to destroy a unique new species of animal.

Fred Wilson:

Bet me.

There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that Semple’s script is witty and smart for its intended, sardonic ways. 

Semple also makes a wise choice in not setting the film in the 1930’s.  The remake has superficial similarities to the 1933 KONG.  We get the same basic threads to the story to connect the dots to make it familiar to those who appreciate the original.  However,  this KONG plays much differently.  The principles now have modestly different names and roles, more or less to adhere to their current time period and more (for some of them) to heighten the film’s satire.  The Denham character is no longer a filmmaker, but instead is now Fred Wilson (the brilliantly zany Charles Grodin) a pompous, arrogant, and ignorant oil executive that is in search of vast petroleum deposits to make him filthy rich (this was the height of the 70’s oil crisis).  Jack Prescott (in the original Driscoll) is played thanklessly by Jeff Bridges as a longhaired hippy anthropologist who seems to think that there is a giant ape on the island that Wilson is going to. 

Ah yes...but then we have “the beauty” of the picture; this time named Dwan and played by then-newcomer Jessica Lang (never more sexy, alluring, and free-spirited).  She’s updated, more or less, as a blond ditz with a heart of gold who is, “Just looking for the right man to come into her life.”  Of course, she is discovered by Wilson’s huge oil tanker and she abruptly joins the group on their guest to the mysterious island in search of oil.  So, they land there, discover native savages (even in the more PC and sensitive 70’s, these characters are still raging stereotypes – unmitigated beasts of the jungle that worship monsters and give up pretty American girls for sacrifices to their Gods).  What's even more incredibly hilarious is how Prescott is able to infer huge nuggets of valuable information about this tribe that no human has ever seen before by observing them for mere seconds.  His flights of fancy are irrepressibly zany and stupefying at the same time. 

Okay, so Kong emerges, takes a liking to Dwan (she was captured and offered up to Kong).  Well, eventually Jack rescues her and Wilson even manages to capture the huge beast.  Realizing that he can’t make any dough off of the oil on the island, he decides to take Kong back to the States on a national gala tour.  Of course,  Kong truly hates any amount of publicity, especially in The Big Apple, and he breaks free of his cage, stomps around New York, recaptures Dwan, climbs to the top of the World Trade Center (yes, he doesn't go up the Empire States Building, much to the dismay of purists), and gets killed by army helicopters with machine guns (not bi-planes).  Employees of the Empire State Building, at the time, expressed their displeasure at the producers' decision to stage the remake's climax at the World Trade Center by picketing the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building dressed in monkey suits.  Time, obviously, was in huge supply for them at the time.

The true irony of KONG '76 is that the visual effects (which then won the 1976 Oscar) are not altogether enchanting or mystical in terms of the re-imagining of the ape itself.  If one were to look at the 1933 original and then see this, any level of exquisite artifice seems largely vacant.  The idea of Baker in the suit works okay in theory, but it soon becomes painfully obvious in many shots.  Far too many moments, which involved a high propensity of blue screen work, have not held up well at all to contemporary eyes.  Also, the before-mentioned moments of the actual life-size Kong look extraordinary in their ridiculous fakeness.  Another key moment in the film, where Kong rescues Dwan from what appears to be a giant snake (he fights no other prehistoric creatures in this version), the slithering creature looks so atrocious that it deserves a rather fitting lampooning from the good folks at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000.

However, some of the other effects that don’t involve Kong are actually sort of magnificent.  This KONG film gets a few things right, especially in terms of envisioning the native village, which is done with the right blend of scope and epic detail (unfortunately, these natives are as ripe with offensive overtones as the ’33 original).  A few more moments of the film also use effects to generate suspense and intrigue, such as the initial meeting of Kong and Dwan during the native sacrifice ritual, as well as a nifty moment where Kong is reunited with Dwan aboard the oil tanker on the way back to America.

I guess when it boils right down to it, this KING KONG will make you laugh and giggle with huge delight or make you cringe and wince with enormous displeasure and spite.  I think that if this KONG is taken in the right vein, then it really is a considerable amount of silly, innocuous fun. Semple’s script, as mentioned, has a daft drollness that underlines the film’s comic overtones, and the film does offer a somewhat fresh perspective on some of the key relationships (this one has a better version of the male/female lead relationship, and the beauty definitely feels more for the beast in this version).  People who are religiously fond of the original KONG may want to stay very clear of this big budget remake.  For all others, there is no denying that this updated KONG was - and still is - a modest diversion and a big scale epic of foolishness, campiness, and overall asinine fun.  It’s not the classic parable that was the original, nor does it ever aspire to be.

 
 

KING KONG (2005) jjj

2005, PG-13, 189 mins.

 

Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts / Carl Denham: Jack Black / Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody / Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschmann / Preston: Colin Hanks / Kong: Andy Serkis / Lumpy: Andy Serkis / Hayes: Evan Parke


Directed by Peter Jackson / Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson / Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

 
 

“I loved KING KONG since I was a kid and it inspired me to make films…”

- Director Peter Jackson

The very fact the director Peter Jackson has such an unabashed level of admiration for the original 1933 KING KONG sort of elicited specific responses from me while I was watched his $200 million dollar remake of it.  

Firstly - and most positively - his keen affection for Merian C. Cooper’s classic horror film is easily perceptible in his re-telling of the tale of beauty and the beast.  He has some nifty referencing to the original film (the most obvious being that he set his film in 1933, which seems like of an obvious choice), but he also is able to craft Kong (the creature) so painstakingly that we feel as much empathy and ultimately sympathy for him as we did with his 1933 incarnation.  Without a doubt, Jackson’s Kong – the beast – feels simultaneously faithful to Cooper’s vision and sort of fresh in its own way.

However, it’s Jackson’s incredible level of hero-worship he exudes for the source material that almost does his remake in.  He obviously wanted to make this film for his entire life (at least all of his incessant harping on the matter should have clued us in to this fact already).  Yet,  his own somewhat arrogant and self-indulgent obsession with the material often undermines the grander aspects of the film.  There is no denying the technical marvel that Jackson’s KING KONG is, but the film – like it’s title creature – is far too large and overwhelming an experience for its own good.  The film does play brilliantly on many occasions, but it soon becomes such an endurance test of showmanship that one has to question whether anyone came on the set to tell Jackson that he should rein in his efforts a bit more.

The very first KING KONG in 1933 was an expertly paced, adrenaline-rushed film going experience.  It knew the nobility and good pacing to tell a tight and taut action story.  At the nearly indigestible running time of over three hours, Jackson’s KING KONG is too bloated, digressive, and enormously overproduced.  His version – without any doubts from yours truly – is an audiovisual nirvana with some of the best, break-neck action sequences of recent memory.  Not only that, but it also shows Jackson at the height of his mastery of utilizing the finest advances in 21st Century technology to tell an ageless tale.  Yet, by the time Carl Denham utters his famous words at the film’s conclusion, I checked my watch, reflected on my three somewhat restless hours in the theatre, and thought, “Why was this film so bathed in needless excess?” 

Well, maybe because it was (a) directed by Peter Jackson, (b) it was directed by a self-professed KING KONG purist and fan and (b) it was directed by Peter Jackson.  For those that have been living under a rock for the past few years, Jackson gained critical and box office acclaim for his much appreciated LORD OF THE RINGS films, so much so that he was awarded an Oscar for Best Director for the final film in that series – THE RETURN OF THE KING.  I can easily state that I am one of the few that have not converted to the “Jackson is a masterful, filmmaking genius” as other filmgoers and critics have.  To my recollection (and opinion), Jackson’s track record is inconsistent.  The first two LORD OF THE RING films were lethargically paced and too dense, but were good entries into the fantasy genre.  His RETURN OF THE KING finished the trilogy triumphantly and improved on the flaws of the first two.  His previous efforts before adapting J.R.R. Tolkein’s books were HEAVENLY CREATURES, truly his only great film, and THE FRIGHTENERS, a truly terrible film.  Previous to those efforts were his ludicrously wretched New Zealand horror films.

Yet, despite his questionable directorial resume, Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS films were exceedingly profitable, grossing nearly $3 billion in worldwide ticket sales.  This, evidently, gave way to Jackson seeing his “dream project” to fruition (this aspiration, and maybe a $20 million dollar pay check – a record sum for a director – from Universal to helm KONG could have also convinced him to make the film).  Basically, with an Oscar in his pocket and successes like RINGS in the recent past, Jackson was given absolute carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted and to release it in any form he envisioned.  The problem with this, of course, is that it's the film’s own inherent self-importance and narrative overkill that impedes it from being something truly great and magnificent.  Epic filmmaking, ironically, does not necessarily mean long and fixatedly drawn out.  You get the sensation that – in Jackson’s eyes – anything that you admire is worth overdoing to the point of redundancy.

This remake – the second if you consider the 1976 KONG – is very faithful to the 1933 original, albeit with some tweaks and changes here and there.  Firstly, Jackson pays some direct tributes (there is one reference to Merian C. Cooper that inspires a self-reverential chuckle), a few scenes that do a good job of lampooning some of the original’s worst dialogue, as well as some direct referencing to the original’s musical score.  The film, as mentioned, is also set in 1933 and is a period piece as a result.  The overall story arc is identical, as is the now famous conclusion.  Perhaps most paradoxical is Jackson’s borrowing of elements of the 1976 remake (one that he has publicly admitted to despising).  He appropriates several aspects of the De Laurentiis film.  Perhaps his biggest addition to his KONG from the 1976 version is in the key relationship of the beast and the beauty.  In the 1933 version Kong loved the girl, but he did not have that love reciprocated.  In the ’76 and ’05 versions, love is much more a two-way entity between the two.

Regardless of what Jackson took from the previous versions, the story has basically remained constant.  Ann Darrow (played kind of effortlessly by the gorgeous Naomi Watts) is a struggling actress who realizes that she desperately needs to secure work just so she can find a decent meal.  Fledging filmmaker Carl Denham (the usually bankable Jack Black) is finding his luck running out as well.  His current film project seems like such an unmitigated flop that that he finds that he must cast a leading lady of poise and beauty to help save his production (he also needs to save himself from his creditors). 

Of course, much as in the original, both of them meet and Ann finds herself quickly aboard The Venture, a sailing vessel heading for a strange, unknown island.  Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) does not seem to trust Denham, as does screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, somewhat underused here).  Also along for the voyage is a beefy and brawny actor, Bruce Baxtor (Kyle Chandler) who is to play Ann’s leading man in Denham’s latest film opus.  Evidently, Ann fails to see anything in her co-star and very quickly falls for Jack.  They both seem to become an instant item by the time the ship reaches its destination.

Enter Skull Island, a foreboding place populated by cruel, demonic native savages that seem to moan, grunt, and salivate like one of Middle Earth's creatures.  Now, considering how far displaced this film version is from the original, Jackson’s inhumanly characterized tribes are more offensively crude and despicable than in even Cooper's film.  Here, they're one dimensional, ethnically stereotyped monsters.  I am willing, of course, to forgive a 1933 film’s sensibilities about portraying a race of natives in a broad and discriminatory manner, but when a film in 2005 strikes up a larger politically incorrect vibe, there is something kind of creepy about it. 

Maybe Jackson could have deflected this criticism by making the native villagers actual creatures, ala the Orcs from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, that are reprehensible to their coreI dunno, but there's just something really unsavory about portraying these indigenous natives as Third World, African male/female beasts that appear like flesh eating zombies from a George A. Romero picture.  For a few scenes I felt whisked away to the easy-going – almost casual - prejudices of the 1933 original.  Perhaps Jackson believed that the audience would not read much into his depiction of the natives by casting a Jamaican actor – Evan Parke – as one of the first mates that discovers Skull Island.  Unfortunately, this character is left spouting so many moral platitudes that you really want him to be the first victim of Kong’s rampage.  He, unfortunately for us, is left alive to engage in a completely unnecessary subplot with another one-dimensional shipmate that leads to nothing later.

But, never mind...back to the story.  The natives capture Ann and offer her up to the 25 foot tall Kong that populates the nearby jungle.  Clearly, Jack understands that he can’t leave the island without her, nor does Denham without some shots of Kong and the island to fill out his picture.  On their way to save Ann they encounter an eclectic assortment of beasts - dinosaurs and giant insects that look like unwanted extras from a JURASSIC PARK film.  Meanwhile, Kong finds Ann to be a carefree and likeable lass (maybe because she make him laugh with her old vaudeville routines involving juggling and dancing, in one of the film’s truly warm-hearted and inspired scenes).  Needless to say, Ann is rescued, Kong is captured by Denham and company, is taken to New York where he later escapes and…yadda-yadda…you know the rest by now.

Firstly, Jackson’s KING KONG does some things precisely right.  The role of Ann (made legendary by Canadian Fay Wray) is well cast with Watts filling some big shoes.  With her golden locks, radiating smile, and girl-next-door sentimentality, it’s easy to see why Kong would – in fact – fall for her.  Watt’s performance is a delicate balancing act between being absolutely petrified of the beast while slowing and gradual opening up to him by realizing that he just may be a misunderstood animal.  The emotional spectrum that she must endure is intense, to say the least.  She has to look apprehensive, scared, intimidated, and later caring and sympathetic.   She gives, arguably, one of the better performances by an actress that was - most likely -  in front of green screens with nothing to act off of that I’ve seen.

Jackson’s Kong is an ingenious and incredibly intricate creation of CGI magic and bold slight of hand.  Kong has cinematically progressed from an 18” rod puppet to a man in a suit and finally into one of the finest computer generated monsters ever committed to celluloid.  This Kong is easily the most inspired yet in terms of his overall character and psychology.  He is a manic and crazed beast that is more animalistic than in any of the other versions.  He is also even more humane in his disposition and demeanor.  Jackson’s KONG is extraordinary in his emotional complexity, ranging from puzzlement, confusion, pathos, amusement, rage, melancholy, and contentment.  It's really a virtuoso creation by the people at New Zealand's  Weta Workshop, who also produced effects on THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Much has also been made of Andy Serkis who, as he did with Gollum in RINGS, assisted Jackson by providing the “motion capture” movements for the animators to create a more realistic Kong.  Serkis even received a credit for “playing” Kong, but that's really a misnomer.  His soul and essence does not come out here as much as it did for Gollum.  The true “performers” of Kong are the effects wizards that brought him to life.  Kong, through the magicians at Weta, gives the best performance in the film.

The film also has incredibly lavish production and art design.  Perhaps even more amazing is Weta’s recreation of Depression era New York itself, which looks amazing in its realism.  Watching KONG I was sort of reminded of the verisimilitude that Ron Howard captured for his CINDERELLA MAN, which also focused The Great Depression.  The cityscapes of KONG  themselves may not look like how The Big Apple actually appeared 60-plus years ago like Howard's work, but the impression of the city is unmistakably there.  Jackson’s New York is a hybrid between bright, neo-illuminated signs and marquees to washed out, sepia toned buildings and cityscapes.  The set design is possibly KONG’s most impressive visual delight.  Jackson’s remake – unequivocally – looks sensational and incorporates every modern trick available to provide an out-of-body detachment in the viewer while watching the film.  Only REVENGE OF THE SITH from this year overshadows KONG in terms of creating a striking and remarkable visual effects piece of pure escapism.

For as much as Jackson does succeed on some levels of KONG, his so-called “faithfulness” to the original also creates some surprising flaws.  Firstly, the film is too bloated and long and spends far, far too much time in the expositional stages forging the development of its characters that don’t even warrant serious development.  It takes seemingly forever before this film to gets to Skull Island and reveal Kong (nearly 90 minutes, by my watch) and by this time I was so restless and agitated that I had to force myself to become stirred by the monster’s entrance.  Yes, there is suspension in waiting, but imagine in you had to wait an hour and a half to see the great white in Steven Spielberg’s JAWS and you get the idea.  40 to 45 minutes would have been palpable, but 90 minutes feels too much of the endurance test. 

Jackson’s KONG largely feels like one of those films that did not get looked over by an editor’s eyes.  Too many scenes (even some of the moments of mayhem) go on and on and on.  Jackson also get a little too boisterous with the camera during some action scenes (his use of strobe effects for zooms is annoying and obvious in construction and mood, and he cuts and pans with such a rapid-fire pace at times that it's difficult to even get an impression of the action itself).  Also, some characters that would have been tertiary ones of importance in other films are given way too much screen time in this film.  One of the shipmates, Jimmy, as is the before-mentioned black first mate, could have had all of their scenes scrapped.  Ditto for the character of Bruce Baxtor, who is utterly erroneous as a stock persona.  The first two KONG films did not feel the need to distract the audience with inane and moronic side characters; why this one felt the need to is beyond me.  The biggest incredulous howl may come at the sight of Baxtor literally swinging to the rescue of his shipmates later on Skull Island.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  This KONG needed to focus of Ann, Driscoll, Denham, and Kong himself, not anyone else.

This KING KONG comes across like one of those Special Director’s Cut DVD’s that plays worse than its original theatrical cut.  With a good 20 minutes cut out of the first act, 5 minutes or so cut from the second act on Skull Island, and a few minutes cut from the conclusion, then KING KONG would have been a far more engrossing, large scale escapist entertainment at two or two and a half hours.  I mean, why spend time with the first mates and needless clarification on the motives of characters we don’t care about when we could have more with Ann and Kong, the true heart of the film that does work?  From start to finish, Jackson’s KONG does not seem to know when to quit.

One curious aspect of the film that is also genuinely lacking is its musical score, which is ironic if you consider Jackson’s love of the 1933 version.  Cooper’s film highlighted one cinema’s first symphonic scores with individual motifs for characters and moments.  James Newton Howard scores Jackson’s film and it is woefully unexceptional and characterless.  He's most likely not to blame, as Howard Shore (Oscar winner for the RINGS films) was originally set to create memorable music for the film and was replaced- at the last minute - due to creative differences.  Newton Howard was essentially forced to create a score in a couple of months to make the film’s release date.  The end result is readily apparent.  A film of this stature deserved an operatic score of the stature, vitality, and majesty of a John Williams.  Newton Howard’s, in hindsight, feels terribly generic.

Perhaps my largest misgiving about this new KONG – aside from its supercilious running time – is in the casting of a few of the leads.  Now, I like Jack Black an awful lot, but he is totally wrong for the character of Denham.  I have always envisioned this character as a man of raw bravado, slimy narcissism, spirited self-importance and confidence, as well as one of vile and manipulative greed and antagonism.  Black sort of phones in a performance that offers none of that and is never once credible as a larger than life, PT Barnum figure with grandiose strokes. I kept on thinking that an actor with more range that could effectively play off our liking, fear, and contempt of him would be more suitable – a Kevin Spacey or a Christopher Walken perhaps?  Black is just too one note and limited here, and his delivery of some of the infamous lines from the original film inspire more unintentional laughs than feelings of nostalgia.  He just appears overwhelmed by the part, and never garners our buy in as a lecherous, egomaniacal, mean-spirited SOB that we want to loathe. 

Then there is Driscoll, as played by Adrien Brody as the least plausible hunky, leading man that goes from writer-geek to action hero.  He – unlike Jeff Bridges from the ’76 version – has very little chemistry with the female lead.  He turns in a performance that essentially facilitates the need of looking dopey-eyed and concerned for Ann will running away from demented monsters at the same time.  Was there not a better way to use an Oscar-winning actor?  At least Bridges appeared to have a hoot in a performance that kind of lampooned the genre character he played; Broody seems lost and confused with his.

I fully intended to give Peter Jackson’s KING KONG a negative review after I left the theatre.  However, I just could not bring myself to do that.  Instead, it deserves a positive recommendation with some very specific reservations When all is said and done, there's much to really admire in the film to warrant a good review.  It's a big, bold, sprawling, and expertly crafted visual effects blockbuster and extravaganza that marries incredible, state of the art images with some moments of real heart and tenderness.  All of the scenes with Kong and Ann shine, although the one moment in a New York park, where he and Ann play around on a frozen river bed, feels a bit too saccharine.  Notwithstanding that, but why Ann was not freezing to death wearing nothing more than an evening gown and why Kong, with all of his raw tonnage, did not crash through and sink to the bottom of the river during this moment is beyond me…but I digress.

Jackson, like Lucas and Spielberg before him, has demonstrated himself to be an astonishingly competent film conductor who is able to generate legitimate awe and wonder in the sights that he is able to create on screen.  Viewing his KING KONG – in some modest dosages – there's no doubt of his impeccable skill in making larger-than-life stories with broad and amazing strokes. Having said that, it is his own subtle haughtiness as a filmmaker that makes his KING KONG a bit of an overstuffed and swollen epic, maybe a bit too much so to the point that no one was given the opportunity to tell him when to stop.  KING KONG is a technical marvel to be appreciated, but is sheer sluggishness is kind of off-putting.  It’s a remarkably solid 90 to 100 minutes of spectacular filmmaking spread out into a pointlessly long three hours.  After watching this version it's clear that beauty did not kill the beast; it was the labored and exhaustive running time of the film that nearly suffocates him.  This remake just spends too much time overwhelming than it does in moving us, oftentimes with too many directorial excesses in wasteful indulgence.  As a result, when we finally see that poor giant ape fall from the Empire States Building to his demise, we feel more relief than pity or sadness.

 

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