King Kong (2005) / Adventure-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and scary images
Running Time: 187 min.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Kyle Chandler, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Andy Serkis, Evan Parke, Jimmy Bell, Frank Darabont (cameo), Peter Jackson (cameo)
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (based on the original story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace)
Review published December 20, 2005
It's a tall order to have to remake a well-known classic, especially one that still is able to thrill audiences today. Despite its popularity, King Kong is an example of a classic film that actually could still be bested, mainly because of the dated aspects of the special effects and the less-than-convincing acting styles of the 1933 performers. Who better to take on the challenge than Peter Jackson, coming off of three of the most wildly successful films ever created, The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
With $20 million coming his way, a record for a director's take on a film, and a budget over $200 million dollars, Jackson is given a virtual blank check to make the King Kong epic he has always wanted to make. While it may not be the landmark film in this era that the original 1933 version was back in the day, Peter Jackson's reworking is about as good as one could ever reasonably expect a remake of it to be.
Interestingly, unlike the previous King Kong remake from 1976, Peter Jackson set about to actually recreate the plot of the original film, setting it in the same era, deviating it only to enhance it, adding a few new characters, while allowing more time for extended special effects extravaganzas. Like a master showman himself, Jackson intends to wow us in our seats, and he does it quite well.
The movie is set in the same depression era New York City that was the current day of the 1933 film, where conniving movie producer Carl Denham (Black, The School of Rock) finds his back against the wall to come up with a hit for the skeptical studio heads he works for. He has a grand scheme, thanks to a one-of-a-kind map to a fabled uncharted island, but the bosses scoff at his grandiose notions of the footage he'll take there. Knowing they will never allow it, Denham decides to load up the already chartered ship and head out before they can stop him, hiring on a new leading lady for his film in stage comedian Ann Darrow (Watts, Stay), while also virtually kidnapping successful playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody, The Jacket) to write appropriate dialogue.
No one could have guessed what they'd find on the other side of the fog that surrounds the mysterious island - strange natives, wild insects, dinosaurs, and more. The one thing Denham wants other than footage of these things is to make untold millions in bringing one of these creatures back with him. That creature happens to be the king of the island, the fierce 25-foot gorilla that the natives have named Kong, who happens to have developed a strange fixation on the leading lady of the film.
From the very first scene, it is apparent that Jackson holds a great deal of reverence to the first King Kong, so much so that he holds his own creation in staunch deference to it. He is so in awe of the original, that even things that others would have excised for making the story weaker are kept in, such as the dinosaurs and other creatures even more improbable and astonishing than Kong himself. He even adds in a scene of giant spider-like creatures attacking the men that the original directors were virtually forced to remove from their own film due to negative audience reaction. From inception, Jackson wants to take almost every single idea and theme of the first film and make sure if carries over, with a determination that earns him a great deal of respect, even if it ends up weakening the impact of his overall story due to implausibility.
Ironically, he puts the first film on such a high pedestal, he diffuses the artistic impact of his own movie somewhat. While there are some interesting new contexts to this film that make it more than a carbon copy, Jackson has already decided that the events of the main story cannot be changed, even if it makes for a redundant movie experience to those that have seen both. Despite some absolutely fantastic special effects and sound effects, there is still a derivative nature to the presentation that leaves so little in the way of story surprises, we're left without the heightened sense of mystery and intrigue that all great adventures should have. Still, it retains our interest because we can admire the different ways that Jackson has decided to redo the scenes in modern form.
While King Kong is, to say the least, quite dazzling to the eye, and every bit as majestic as a colossal undertaking of this magnitude should be, there is something that just feels mechanical about the way it is constructed. Perhaps the only heart and soul to be found in the film lies not with the character of King Kong himself, so much as in Jackson's love for the original film and his determination to best it scene for scene. Ironic that Jackson becomes not unlike Carl Denham himself, so obsessed with crafting a spectacle that will enthrall all audiences that he fails to see his discovery as an emotional entity that we should feel empathy with. Just as he did with The Lord of the Rings, Jackson loves to play with his favorite toys, and even though he allows us to watch him, certainly creative enough to keep our attention, the pathos and sadness of the movie are still dwarfed by the feeling of exuberance and marvel. It's almost top-heavy; the build-up is so immense and exhausting that by the time the climax rolls around, we're no longer able to be awed any more, especially since most of us are quite familiar with how the ending will play out.
The original 1933 King Kong has lasted the test of time, primarily because we all fall in love with the beast right along with Ann Darrow. When one thinks back to that film, it's the tragedy of it that one remembers. While this new version is certainly tragic, when we think back to it, we don't remember King Kong and his story so much as we remember the special effects, the horrific scenes, and the grand spectacle. While Jackson has certainly crafted a fine film here, eclipsing the original in every technical area, I feel that, over time, as his own film starts to look more and more dated in terms of special effects, viewers in the future will see how Jackson had spent more creative energy exploring the monsters of Skull Island than he did the humanity of his flesh and blood characters. Perhaps they'll wonder why a movie with twice the running time and over a hundred times the budget never really gives us any more satisfaction than the original film does.
©2005 Vince Leo