It’s the Return of the King all over again, and he’s got a dazzling Queen. Almost too much of a good thing, Peter Jackson’s remake of the film that made him want to make movies is a super-sized version of a yarn that was big to begin with, a stupendous adventure that maximizes, and sometimes oversells, its dazzling wares; but, no matter how spectacular the action, “King Kong” is never more captivating than when the giant ape and his blond captive are looking into each others’ eyes. Universal and Jackson’s B.O. haul in all markets is destined to be huge — “Rings” or even “Titanic” huge.
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 “Kong” was one of the sensations of its era, and Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects set a standard that went unsurpassed for decades. The 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake wasn’t as bad as its current reputation would have it, although the pic never took hold of the public imagination as the first one did and this one is likely to.
Given the extent of Jackson’s accomplishment on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, there was never any doubt this “Kong” would excel in the effects department — that its Kong vs. T-Rex battle would be one for the ages. The looming question, rather, was what could justify expanding a 100-minute classic into a three-hour-plus extravaganza.
The answer is that Jackson and his “Rings” screenwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have elaborated nearly every aspect of the story, providing backgrounding, more thorough characterization, physicalization of events that were previously elided, and expansion of incident. From the vivid opening montage of Depression-era New York City, it’s evident Jackson intends to paint on a very broad canvas that will include a thousand-and-one Kong-related details he’s been storing up since childhood.
As richly rendered as all of this is, not all of it is necessary; Jackson’s “Kong” plays more like a Director’s Cut, with scenes that could easily be dispensed with or tightened. One cringes a bit at the thought of a DVD expansion of this version.
Still, what’s up on screen is rarely short of staggering. Wisely sticking to the original early-’30s period, Jackson & Co. have adhered closely to Cooper and Edgar Wallace’s grandly tragic story of a mighty beast brought to ruin by beauty and civilization. Crucially, the emotional content is just as potent as the enormously impressive visual effects, as Kong’s sad solitude and embrace of companionship are conveyed with simplicity and eloquence.
Taking 70 minutes — 70% of the original’s entire running time — just to get to Kong will be too much for some viewers, especially impatient youngsters. Leisurely though it is, the opening stretch does a solid job of welcoming one into the story, especially into the tough prospects faced by pretty struggling actress Ann Darrow (Watts) once her vaudeville show closes down. Facing similarly desperate straits is filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black), whose financiers want to shut down his new adventure-themed picture and who suddenly lacks a leading lady for it.
Carl’s motto is, “Defeat is always momentary,” and when he chances upon Ann, who believes that “Good things never last,” he solves both their problems by spiriting her aboard a ramshackle tramp steamer bound for an unmapped island where Carl hopes to find the subject for his new production. Unlike the original, this “Kong” takes the trouble to flesh out passengers and crew.
Carl essentially kidnaps writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a serious playwright enormously admired by Ann. In a droll move, Carl houses Jack in a large below-decks animal cage, and the scribe spends most of the voyage behind bars toiling on the scenario. Carl also brings along an assistant (Colin Hanks) and preening leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler). The rusty bucket itself is staffed by the sure-handed Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), first mate Hayes (Evan Parke), learning-on-the-job youngster Jimmy (Jamie Bell) and heavy-lidded Lumpy the Cook (Andy Serkis, who also “plays” the title character that was animated around his movements).
Voyage takes long enough for romance to blossom between Ann and Jack (the latter no doubt spurred by the additional motivation of escaping his Noah’s Ark-like quarters), for Jimmy to brandish his choice of reading matter (“Heart of Darkness”) and for Carl to reveal their actual destination is fog-enshrouded Skull Island.
The place lives up to its name when, after a perilous arrival between soaring rocks, they go ashore to find countless skeletons at a bleak coastal fortress. In due course, the adventurers are surrounded by possessed natives both terrifying and terrified, the latter caused by whatever lurks in the jungle behind an enormous wall. Pic wastes some time by returning the crew to the ship after an initial conflict with the islanders, only to have them come back to see Ann captured and served up as an offering on the far side of the wall.
The 67-minute second act bracingly begins with something we’ve never seen before — what it’s like from Ann’s point of view to be carried in Kong’s hand as he bounds through the forest; Jackson shows her lurching about and the surrounding environs whipping past her eyes, helter-skelter. As her colleagues follow in pursuit, the pic becomes a veritable Creatures on Parade, as one sequence after another trots out ever-more dangerous giant critters.
The first of these, a Brontosaurus stampede in which enraged lumbering beasts roar right over the men in a tight ravine, is an instant classic. After an emotionally crucial break during which Ann both captivates and stands up to the 25-foot gorilla, she encounters a giant centipede and three T-rexes, all of which Kong must battle while dropping through a tangle of vines in a chasm.
As if this weren’t enough (and it actually is), immediately thereafter follows the film’s ickiest sequence, in which a succession of giant insects and arachnids, along with gruesome man-eating tentacles, lay siege to some unfortunates in a cave. Cooper and Schoedsack filmed a Spider Cave sequence for the original “Kong” and, deeming it excessive and extraneous, immediately cut it. One can see why.
For all of the excitement, however, Kong’s status as the lonely old man of Skull Island is cemented in a touching scene between him and Ann on his craggy promontory, from which he can endlessly watch the beautiful sunsets and contemplate his status as the last of his breed (Jackson thoughtfully includes a glimpse of a giant gorilla skeleton at one point). Cradling a sleeping Ann, Kong is suddenly forced to fight one more battle, against some toothsome giant bats, which gives Jack time to rescue Ann, leading to Kong’s eventual capture.
One detail Jackson decides not to clarify is how the beast is placed aboard the ship. Kong is next seen onstage in New York, the subject of a much-ballyhooed presentation by the vindicated Carl. As before, Kong escapes and runs rampant through the city searching for Ann. The Empire State Building climax is spectacular, dizzying, even vertigo-inducing. Kong’s farewell to Ann atop the landmark’s spire is a tad protracted, but authentically moving.
That the unlikely relationship at the movie’s core comes so plausibly alive is a huge tribute to Watts. Ever-reliable thesp does her share of requisite screaming, but she makes Ann resourceful when she tries to amuse and distract Kong, bold in the way she defies him and open-hearted in her accessibility to her captor’s plight, which is wonderfully expressed in the eyes and animated facial expressions. Ann Darrow is no Hedda Gabler, but Watts’ expressiveness more than vindicates Jackson’s decision to use a first-rate actress in the role.
In a part originally and once again highly reminiscent of “Kong” creator Merian Cooper, Black broadly projects the character’s dominant canny and opportunistic traits but finds little else to add. Brody proves a good choice as the slim and lofty playwrig
ht forced into unaccustomed he-man heroics on Skull Island, although his role could have been sharpened with erudite asides, particularly during the worst of times. Supporting thesps are solid, but essentially all male human character development ceases upon Kong’s entrance.
Opening reels views of Manhattan are breathtaking in their detail and sense of a recaptured past. Curiously, there’s a more artificial feel to the areas depicted during the climax, at least until Kong ascends the Empire State Building, whereupon the perspectives are extraordinary.
One never knows precisely where Grant Major’s production design leaves off and the work of the digital artists begins, but the evocation of Skull Island’s forbidding landscapes and impossibly dense tangles of foliage are exceptional. Effects work of all kinds is of the highest level, credit for which begins with Jackson; special makeup, creatures and miniatures creator Richard Taylor; and senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri; and extends to the entire Weta Workshop and Digital staff.
Lenser Andrew Lesnie’s work not only integrates beautifully with the effects but is highly flattering to the actors in classical Hollywood fashion. Score by James Newton Howard, a last-minute substitution for Howard Shore when his work was abandoned, is muscularly supportive.
“King Kong” (1933)