King Kong has long been one of my favorite films. Some might say, “it’s a movie, not a film.” But that’s nitpicking. The original is a stunning work of animation, blended with live action to create an entirely believable world in which a giant ape could fall in love with a screaming girl. I even loved the remake — especially for the wonderful performance of Jessica Lange as the naive wanna-be movie star Dwan. But neither of these films could prepare me for the cinematic experience that is Peter Jackson’s King Kong. It’s bigger, longer, louder, scarier, and it manages to maintain the same naivete that keeps the original version on everyone’s top ten list!
Where Dino DeLaurentiis tried to update the story and add an environmental, politically correct subtext, Jackson set his version back in 1933 where the first film took place. Carl Denham (a slightly subdued Jack Black) is a renegade filmmaker on the outs with his money-men. He hijacks a tramp steamer, its crew, his loyal cameraman and sound technician, and the handsome leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) to search for a film location based on an old yellowing treasure map. Also in the mix is the screenwriter Jack Driscoll (played solidly by Adrian Brody) and vaudevillian hoofer Ann Darrow (in a charming turn by Naomi Watts). This first hour is a bit long, a bit talky, but sets up the characters in a way that the other films didn’t. We know these characters by the time they arrive at Skull Island. And we’ve made up our minds about them.
It’s about an hour into the film that Kong makes his first appearance. It’s really his voice we hear … and the threat of his presence. The Skull Island natives have been turned into a tribe of terrified zombies by the proximity of whatever lurks behind the giant wall which separates them from the jungle. This sequence is quite terrifying, as the natives are played not as stereotypical dancing buffoons but rather as a genuine threat … and they’re scary to look at!
Kong as giant ape is a wonder of modern computer generated images. For the most part he blends seamlessly with the live action and his facial expressions are authentic. If there was a weakness to both the earlier King Kong films, it was that the filmmakers didn’t seem to research quite how a gorilla moved. The movement in this one (by Andy Serkis, who performed a similar role for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings ) is remarkable. There are a couple of weak spots where Kong looks added in at a later date, especially in the third act New York City scenes; he just doesn’t fit on Times Square, and the ice skating sequence … ugh! But the island scenes and the battles with dinosaurs are thrilling. The rapid-fire edits as Kong carries Ann through the jungle are fabulous!
The performances by the cast are all on a high level. Watts shows love, terror, admiration, appreciation, trust and shock, all with her eyes and expressive mouth. She cuts down on the amount of screaming Miss Darrow does and becomes more believable because of it. Brody is not one of my favorite actors and I thought he was too cerebral for this “action hero” part, but I found him to be perfect as the cynical playwright who finds strength in his love for the fair damsel in distress. Black minimizes the mugging (although I’m fairly certain that his eyebrows have a life of their own) and offers an entertaining caricature of the original film-maker, Merrian C. Cooper, blended with a dash of Orson Welles. He also gets to say the last line of the picture, “It wasn’t the planes that killed Kong. ‘T’was beauty killed the beast.” The supporting cast is excellent too, particularly Chandler as the rugged but nervous leading man.
New York City in the 30s looks gorgeous in Jackson’s reimagined vision. The final battle on top of the Empire State Building is exciting and poignant. This is not a horror movie, nor a monster film. This is a tale of unrequited love. And that’s the stuff dreams are made of. Rush to the theatre if you haven’t already and see King Kong. It’s going to be a long wait for the extended director’s cut DVD … but I’ll be counting the days!