Review of King Kong
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/20/05
I grew up with King Kong. King Kong was a friend of mine. Peter Jackson’s nominal ape is no King Kong! When I was a child in New York, Thanksgiving Days would not have been the same without WOR-TV’s King Kong marathons, which included the original 1933 film, its 1934 sequel- Son Of Kong, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, and several Japanese films with the same titular gorilla. My dad and I loved those films. Director Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong (and it is a remake of the 1933 classic, not a mere updating like the 1976 Jessica Lange camp classic) is not nearly as great a film as most of the critics say it is, but it’s still a damned sight better than most films out today, and certainly most horror films. The single best thing Jackson did was to set the film in the 1930s, and not in the 2000s, because this harkens back to an era where it was still plausible to believe in undiscovered islands, and round the world trips to them were akin to what interplanetary travel is in space films that came along later. The worst thing Jackson did, however, was nearly double the screening time of the original film, bloating this version to nearly three hours. There simply isn’t enough material, so he adds far too many silly scenes of the modern Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) ridiculously making goo-goo eyes at the twenty-five foot tall gorilla.
This, and a few other negatives, make the newer version a much inferior one to the original, although better than the 1976 version. Now, don’t get me wrong, the special effects in this film top even those of the Spielbergian dino-fests of the 1990s, but even though Jackson was wise to go back to a 1930s setting, did he have to go retro-racist to boot? I’m hardly PC, but the Skull Islanders’ savage depiction was ghastly and incredibly demeaning. First, since the island was south of Sumatra, it would be inhabited by people who looked Indonesian, not Negroid, nor even Negritos. Second, that they were almost all in a zombified state is odd, since this is a cultural trait from Haiti, in the West Indies, not that of the East Indies. And, of course, amongst the first to die in the film are the nerdy guy with eyeglasses, the black sailor, and the Chinese. Who survives? The Great White Hunters! I don’t know what sort of statement Jackson thought he was making, but perhaps New Zealand is so far removed from the political realities of today that he just didn’t know he was being racist with such depictions and narratives. I guess the Maoris have had it much better down under than we were led to believe.
On the positive side, the beauty meets beast tale is good enough to withstand Jackson’s rape of it. It’s the same as the original- save every minor character has expository scenes that add up to nothing, and this wastes the bulk of the first hour. This includes the soon to be dead black and Chinese sailors, and a cowardly blond kid that the black sailor befriends, and quotes from Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness from- in case the obvious allusions were not strong enough. A filmmaker named Carl Denham (Jack Black) goes off to finish an adventure film that his pal Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing. In this version he’s on the lam for having stolen his film company’s property. Darrow is the first actress he can find. In a sly nod to meta-fiction, Denham mentions a number of actresses that tried out for the role, but did not want it, including an actress named Fay (as in Fay Wray- the original Darrow). He hires a tramp steamer and off they go, as Driscoll and Darrow fall in love, and the rest of the crew eventually tires of Denham’s ways, all but the oblivious and egocentric star of the film, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler). They are about to turn back to civilization, when they arrive at Skull Island, almost crashing into its surreal rocks. This is an island straight from a 1930s flick, with baroquely carved precipices, etc., and the ruins of an abandoned high culture (Atlantis? Mu? Lemuria?), and it works very well. The natives kill some of Denham’s folks, then kidnap Darrow, and sacrifice her to their god, the mighty King Kong. The beast captures her and off they go, into the jungle. The ape makes Darrow perform tricks, and the CG really works well on him. But, the shots of Darrow from afar, in the ape’s mitts, are just as obviously phony as in the original, especially in the Gumby-like motion of her flailing legs and arms. Why this is I do not know. Some of the scenes from the original are redone, but with a difference. Kong flicks the sailors off a log that spans a gorge, and then battles a Tyrannosaurus Rex to the death- actually three of them, again winning by prying open the third one’s jaws, after a stillicide through another viny gorge. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is first-rate, and the lapses in logic, such as the men mostly surviving a brontosaurus stampede through a gorge, while chased by allosaurs, Kong’s indestructible forearms that can withstand repeated T. Rex bites, or the cowardly kid’s perfect aim in shooting giant roaches off of Driscoll, can be forgiven as staples of action films. The real problems lie with the ‘deeper’ aspects of the film, if such a term about a film starring a giant ape can be used.
After many brushes with death, Driscoll presses on alone to Kong’s clifftop lair, despite having no gun, and steals Ann from the ape by hanging on to the legs of a bat. They make their way back to Denham and the crew, with Kong in pursuit, and a series of fortuitous breaks allow them to capture the beast, much to Darrow’s dismay. While the hair-raising, and reality-challenging escapes are par for the course in films like this, the idea that Darrow has a warm wetty for the big ape is too much. After all, he may have saved her from the dinos, but he still abused her, and what would happen when he first tried to show her his simian love gun?
Months pass, Kong is a big attraction on Broadway, and Darrow has parted ways with Denham, whom she sees as exploitive (although he’s now rich), and Driscoll, who’s written a Broadway comedy for her. Of course, Kong escapes, far too easily, and one wonders whether insurance companies existed back then, for there’s no way such a creature could have been shown off in such an ill-advised way. He goes after Driscoll, who has come to see the show, to see Darrow, unaware she’s not the blond who’s performing with the ape. Driscoll escapes through the wintry Manhattan, with Kong in pursuit. Just as he captures Driscoll, and is about to do him in, there comes Darrow, in a mere negligee, in the middle of winter, walking down deserted Manhattan streets. The ape is lovestruck, once again. Ok, sorry, but while I can overlook the fact that her walking nearly naked in winter and not getting hypothermia is a mere artifice to move the tale forward, Darrow’s obsession with Kong is ridiculous. No, she doesn’t shout, ‘Kong,’ wistfully and plaintively, as in many other sequels featuring the ape, but I would have taken that over these ridiculous flirtations. Kong gathers her, and they happily go slip-sliding away on a frozen Central Park pond, until the Army comes and all hell breaks loose. A little less Dorothy Hamill, please, and more King Kong would be nice. Kong escapes to the biggest thing in sight- the Empire State Building. This is so iconic a symbol, phallically speaking, that even had 9/11 not happened, and even were the tale made modern, I’m glad they went back to the original’s milieu, and not the Twin Towers of the ’76 film. Several times Kong puts Darrow out of harm’s way, and she keeps on coming, implausibly, in negligee and heels, in winter, 1200+ feet up, until Kong falls, Driscoll saves her, and Denham tells the audience that, ‘‘Twas beauty slew the beast.’ Fade to black.
Andy Serkis, who was the CG Gollum in Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings films, is put to great effect as the template for Kong, as well as playing the ship’s cook, yet seems destined to be a ‘star without a face’. Overall, this film is an improvement over the vastly overrated, and similarly bloated The Lord Of The Rings films, but it cannot come close to matching the original. Too much time is wasted on the non-essential story. We don’t need to know, nor care, of the ship’s crew- there are only four characters this film is about: Kong, Darrow, Driscoll, and Denham. Everyone else is furniture, and should be treated that way, as in the original. The hour of character set-up is thin, and there’s no need to build suspense, for the story’s well-known. Get us to the beast! But, if you feel you must try to make a real ‘film’, rather than just a popcorn movie, then at least add a little true art. After all, despite all the wasted time, there is not a single three dimensional character outside the main quartet, anyway. It makes one wonder what Jackson would do if he ever did a film that was a real adult drama- you know, one with real people and real dilemmas. Instead, Jackson just slathers on the schmaltz between ape and babe like lard. Which is exactly what’s wrong with this film vis-à-vis the original. One is to believe that Kong and Darrow connect because she does a vaudeville routine for him? Film critic Roger Ebert thinks this is why the film succeeds, because it removes the creepy animality of the 1933 film. But this is, in fact, this film’s weakest point: Kong goes PC. Instead of the scene, in the original, where Kong strips away Darrow’s clothes, then sniffs them in his paws, this Kong goes goo-goo at her sight. And, after the T. Rex battles, Darrow is never scared of Kong again. Fay Wray became famous for her fearful screams. After the first couple of minutes of their encounter, Naomi Watts never utters a peep. Huh? And don’t give me this crap that she sees Kong’s ‘inner monkey’- this film needed more beat with its beauty.
Jackson’s script, co-written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is paper-thin. In a sense, he may be suffering from what could be called the ‘George Lucas Effect’. You know, a director has a super-smash hit, gets too much freedom to do whatever he wants, and indulges himself to the max. Spielberg was the first to get it. After Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind he did the awful Indiana Jones films, which propelled him to the schmaltzy treacle he did in the 1980s and ‘90s- The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan. The most recent victim seems to have been M. Night Shyamalan, with Jackson soon to be flushed.
Overall, this version of Kong is not bad, and at times, quite good, and you’ll leave the theater with a bit of a buzz. But, after a while to reflect, and especially if you recall the original, this film starts to sink in estimation, for only the effects are improved (although kudos for the old time opening and end credits. If the new film of The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe is filet mignon, King Kong is a good, juicy hamburger. How you feel about that depends on whether you wanted dog food, or a good T-bone.
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