Although director Peter Jackson made his bacon on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the movie he most wanted to do was King Kong. He saw the 1933 original on TV as a kid in New Zealand, and never forgot it. Jackson had a script in development nine years ago, but after his big budget horror / sci-fi flick The Frighteners scared audiences away, King Kong was put back in the toy chest. Several Academy Awards later, Jackson returned to his first cinematic love and went to work.
While the King Kong remake is undoubtedly a labor of love, it’s not your typical nearsighted, precious homage: This 2005 version will appeal to those monster movie fans who are thoroughly familiar with the story of the beauty and the beast, as well as to those under-30s who have never known a big-screen King Kong in their lifetime.
I’m sure there will be dozens of reviews that will explore the original and the first significant remake (1976), so I’ll dispense with all that and will simply address the task at hand. (Except to say that the 2005 Kong has apparently been neutered and lobotomized; gone are the bizarre sexual overtones and the ape’s unprovoked murderous aggression.)
King Kong, set in the 1930s, begins by introducing the central human characters: A flamboyant but floundering filmmaker named Carl Denham (Jack Black); a gorgeous but penniless vaudevillian actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts); and a talented up-and-coming playwright who’s just breaking into films, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody).
The three converge and find themselves filming a clandestine movie aboard a tramp steamer called the S.S. Venture, headed for the legendary Skull Island. The supporting cast includes Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn and Jamie Bell as his mysterious surrogate son; Colin Hanks as Denham’s long-suffering assistant; and Kyle Chandler as preening leading man actor Bruce Baxter. Andy Serkis plays both Lumpy the cook and King Kong (unless you’ve been locked away in a remote cabin writing your manifesto for the past several years, you’ll know that Serkis was also Gollum in the LOTR trilogy, playing an equally eye-catching and dazzlingly rendered computer-generated character).
Once the Hollywood types and the salty seamen arrive at their mist-enshrouded jungle destination, they barely have time to drop anchor before things go terribly wrong. Ann is kidnapped by the local natives and offered up as a sacrifice to their resident bogeyman, the giant ape we all know as King Kong. Carrying the fragile blonde in his huge dark hand, the beast takes the beauty back to his lair. There lay the bones of not only another giant gorilla (a rival? A mate?), but the remains of many other human sacrifices. Ann decides to run for it, but she doesn’t get far.
Meanwhile Ann’s companions sally forth into the depths of Skull Island to find her. Denham takes every opportunity to film his movie along the way, naturally incorporating the enchanted island’s indigenous dinosaurs into the plot (much to pretty-boy Baxter’s dismay). Here we get to know a lot more about the peripheral characters (too much, truth be told), and then we get to watch them die horrible deaths at the claws, teeth, and tentacles of some rather nasty prehistoric creatures.
Long about now there is a spectacular sequence involving Kong, Ann, and a T-Rex. While comparisons to Jurassic Park are inevitable, it’s interesting to see the different styles between Spielberg and Jackson in similar chase scenes. Jackson’s action can’t be beat, but he is sorely lacking Spielburg’s mastery of suspense — while the chain of events is indeed eye-popping, it’s seldom scary or edge-of-your-seat.
The mighty Kong is eventually caught and subdued and shipped back to Manhattan where he is touted before an oohing and ahhing audience as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. Tuxedoed impresario Denham’s dreams of cash are dashed when the angry ape breaks his chains and takes a bite out of the Big Apple.
The movie does go on and on, yet a lot is left out. For instance, the restless natives serve their purpose in offering Ann up and then, despite the time the crew spends on the island, we never see them again. Kong goes from dopey captive on Skull Island to dolled up stage star in the blink of an eye. How is he secured on the ship? Who sets the course back to civilization? Does anyone ever find out about the dinosaurs? And so on.
The pacing, at 3+ hours, is a slow climb — practically crawling at first, then there’s a carrot-dangling midsection, and finally a bang-up climax as Kong reaches the apex of New York’s tallest skyscraper. While a good 30 to 40 minutes could easily have been lost, the movie still works. It is a huge extravaganza with a gently beating heart, and that’s not an easy feat to pull off properly.
While the vintage-tinged CGI art deco era is not quite as authentically recreated as it was in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (a very underrated film, in my opinion), it’s hyper-real and certainly dazzling. The key sequence that takes place atop the Empire State building and uses bi-planes and a glorious sunrise as its canvass is particularly stunning. There are a few moments of quiet grace (Kong and Ann’s skate across a frozen pond — an homage to Portrait of Jennie?) that work very well.
“Superlungs” Watts is a good choice for a feistier, less victim-like Ann Darrow. She’s pretty and petite yet shows her mettle with the right balance of fear, wonder, gratitude and sympathy for the embattled ape. Black is such a larger-than-life person it’s hard to watch the movie and forget that he’s “Jack Black”, but he ultimately works as the flashy showman with a Pomade Marcel wave who eventually sees the error in his greedy ways. Adrien Brody’s writer could be likened to an early edition of Arthur Miller — a studious but strong man who attracts the girl with brains (while Kong saves her life with brawn).
Serkis is, of course, the real star of the show and as he did with Gollum, he manages to bring wholly believable humanity to a computerized character. (The only other actor to come close in that regard is Alan Tudyk in 2004’s I, Robot.) Although traditional mo-cap techniques were used, some brand new technical razzle-dazzle has been invented by the folks at WETA to get even more finite impressions of an actor’s facial expressions and even, they claim, his emotion (e-mo-cap?). It’s great to see Serkis playing the crusty cook Lumpy, as well as the title character. Kong’s actions and facial expressions are certainly flawless, but so are the external things like his silverback fur, his finger-pads, his jaggedly broken fang, and his battle-scars.
Jackson’s next project is set to be the first cinematic adaptation of a haunting novel called The Lovely Bones. Although the source material is highly supernatural, I am looking forward to seeing the director return to something more intimate and organic along the lines of 1994’s Heavenly Creatures (which is still my favorite Peter Jackson film).
King Kong is a colossal creature feature and despite its overly long running time and superfluous characters, it is certainly worth seeing at least once.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson To read Staci's "King Kong" movie reviews for Horror.com click the year 2005 - 1976 - 1933
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Posted on: 12-07-2005