King Kong (2005) REVIEW

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO


In some ways, it seems kind of strange to me that Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” was as hotly anticipated as it was. I mean, where I come from, a lot of well-meaning folks can’t remember the difference between Kong and Godzilla without taking a moment to think about it. And we all remember what happened when Hollywood opted to remake Godzilla back in 1998. (Ugh.) A remake of “King Kong”? Not only has it been done before badly (in 1976), but the original is an undisputed cinema classic. The magic name in all of this is obviously Peter Jackson, and that makes all the difference. For his closely watched and highly anticipated follow-up to his “Lord of the Rings” masterwork, Jackson chose to remake what he commonly refers to as his favorite film, and the one movie that he claims truly made him want to be a filmmaker. That’s another thing that’s sort of strange – what kind of filmmaker sets out to remake his FAVORITE MOVIE? Isn't that in some way like admitting your own superiority to it? Would our cuddly and fun Peter Jackson think that way?? Whatever his motivation for doing this film, we can be thankful. His take on “King Kong” is a top-tiered entertainment achievement of the highest level. Not only does it operate as a very specific love letter to the original 1933 film (which some have called the “Star Wars” of its day), it effectively builds upon it, not only in terms of special effects, but also in terms of characterization and storytelling. It is the theatrical must-see movie of the year, hands down.

I admit that I’m not someone who’s been waiting for this with baited breath. Although I grew to love the LOTR series, I really miss the Peter Jackson of “The Frighteners” and earlier. In all honesty, when the rest of the world jumped on the Jackson bandwagon, (most of them still oblivious to his early work – oh, the temptation to recommend “Bad Taste”…) I felt a bit annoyed at the whole thing. So, while still wishing the man best of luck, I sat back, arms crossed, demanding that this “King Kong” movie of his, which he’s been trying to get made since before LOTR, prove itself. I needn’t have worried. The film’s star may be big and stinky, but the film is most certainly not. (And I don’t mean Jack Black.)

It sounds ridiculous, but story in some ways amounts to a love triangle between Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow, Kong, and Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll. If I were her, I’d be stuck too, considering that I’ve not been a fan of Brody’s since his big-headed Oscar kiss shtick. But fear not, “King Kong” is not the pro-beastiality film that Hollywood thinks the world has been waiting for. Amid the adventure and excitement, there are some bigger themes to consider, including those of obsession, opportunism, and mankind’s uncomfortably close proximity to the animal world when it comes to primal behavior.

Plot-wise, this version sticks very closely to the original. For those who are unfamiliar with that film, stop being such losers, and get that DVD ASAP. Familiarity with that film is not required to greatly enjoy this new one, but it does bring a significant additional layer of reward to the proceedings. Homage abounds, as dialogue, costumes, and even scenes from the original lovingly turn up. One could almost assume that the 1933 directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack would be proud of this remake, if not for its re-envisioning of Black’s Carl Denham, obviously based upon Cooper in the original, as the filmmaking huckster/weasel that he is. In this respect, I have to give it to the remake – as great as the Cooper/Schoedsack classic is, it at best skirts around the issue of who’s at fault for all the chaos and death, even if it is literally the filmmakers themselves (in aerial cameos) who strafe Kong to his fate.

The story, if you don’t already know it, begins in depression-era New York City, as desperate filmmaker Denham happens upon out-of-work actress Darrow on the brink of the journey of the ship he’s chartered for a far-off mysterious destination. They’re headed for “the last undiscovered spot on the map”, which is, in Denham’s mind, the ultimate film location. It is a dark Lost World, forgotten by time, and home to some of the most deadly inhabitants ever known to man. At about the one hour mark of this three hour epic, Kong makes his memorable debut, making off into the hostile jungle with the beautiful Ann, and given chase by both the ship’s and Denham’s entire crews. Peril encountered mostly involves dinosaurs, almost all of them fresh to the screen, as to both successfully avoid “Jurassic Park” comparisons and envelop viewers in an all-consuming fantasy world. That same familiar-but-not-quite-real-life quality is then applied to Jackson’s wondrous envisioning of 1930s New York City, where the ante is truly upped to giant ape proportions. Along the way, Ann eventually becomes enamored with her captor, seeing the wounded soul of this savage beast, profoundly realized for the screen by WETA workshop and actor Andy “Gollum” Serkis. Viewers will feel more sympathy for this digital creation than for most flesh and blood characters in other films.

Naomi Watts is perfectly cast as Ann Darrow, leaving no mystery as to why not only Kong falls for her, but why everyone else risk their lives to get her back. Brody, I must say, is competent as Jack Driscoll, re-imagined here as a frustrated playwright. Jack Black inadvertently gives very brief glimpses of being in over his head in this big-budget extravaganza, as he is saddled with the most Cooper/Schoedsack dialogue (read: a bit dated and cheesy but also too classic to not include), but in the end, he gets the job done. James Newton Howard turns in a rousing adventure score worthy of following the Max Steiner score that preceded it over seventy years ago, and is still fondly remembered as one of the greatest musical scores of all time. Jackson’s script (co-written by his usual collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) and direction prove that LOTR was no fluke (if anyone were to actually think that), and cements his place as THE event filmmaker and storyteller of our time.

I suppose the million-dollar question is, does Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” actually manage to surpass the original classic? It’s not one that many film buffs would dare ask, for fear of having to possibly grant superiority to a remake (always an ugly word), in this case without even the test of time. One struggles to come up with another example of a modern imagining that does justice to its classic source material. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” comes close, but even closer is the comic book series “Ultimate Spider-Man”, which first six issues were masterfully spent fleshing out and modernizing the wall crawler’s origin, first told over forty years ago in a mere eleven pages. Could any comic fan ever bring himself to say that “Ultimate Spider-Man” tops the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko original? No, that would be like sacrilege, but at the same time it undeniably builds upon it in a way that only enriches the story. Exactly the same is true of the “Kong” films – the brilliance of the original cannot be denied, but the beauty of this remake is how it actually honors its source by building upon it in a pure and viable way.

Same may say that “King Kong” has a long first hour, as it is all character development and exposition, but I say it doesn’t hurt the movie since it is entertaining all the while - and if not, any boredom will be immediately forgotten once the action begins anyway. Certain moments will be too intense for sensitive children, but the “Passion of the Kong” ending will bring out the gushing sensitivity in everyone. Peter Jackson’s film works as many things: action, adventure, horror, comedy, romance and tragedy, but above and beyond all of that, “King Kong” is spectacle. Find the biggest bells n’ whistles cinema in your neck of the woods, stand in line for as long as it takes, and then enjoy every minute of it. Because like all true cinematic marvels, the DVD experience will merely be a reasonable facsimile at best. And since it’s Universal, it will probably be a buggy DVD-18 anyhow, so enjoy this on the big screen while you can. This is one film event that earned its anticipation. Behold, Kong - The eighth wonder of the world! (Well, ninth wonder if you count the ’33 version separately.)

- Jim Tudor

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