A movie that proves the old adage, “a fool and his monkey are soon parted,” King Kong is every bit as big as you’ve heard — and filled in with something like equal parts inspiration and cinematic hot air. Its 187-minute running time is undeniably too much and really does seem born more of Peter Jackson’s desire to attain the scope of his Lord of the Rings films than out of any dictates of the story.
Let’s face it, this is a pretty simple tale: Overzealous filmmaker goes to uncharted island to make a movie, finds giant ape, brings ape back to New York; ape then breaks loose, causing death and destruction, climbs Empire State Building and gets shot to death by airplanes. Everything else is incidental, and while the incidentals are fun, there’s a limit.
Without thinking about it too hard, I could name at least three things that could be trimmed or cut out entirely that wouldn’t hurt this film. These things are just overkill — and not Jacksonian overkill, either. They feel more in the realm of Spielberg or Lucas in a kind of simplistic “more is better” manner.
In other words, if the 1933 Kong fought one T. rex, the 2005 model will take on at least three of them. If the sailors ran from a brontosaurus in the original, they’ll be imperiled by a veritable stampede’s worth here. If our old simian buddy picked up one woman, saw it wasn’t Fay Wray and blithely dropped her to her doom, Jackson’s big monkey will do it in his search for Naomi Watts four times — to a point where you almost expect the venerable ape to grumble, “Sure are a lot of blondes in this town.”
That said, King Kong is a pretty remarkable film, and one that was made by someone who is quite obviously nuts about the original (evident even from the beginning, when the opening credits … er … ape the design of the ones from 1933.) Jackson’s Kong is as much homage as remake — and that may well be its strength and its weakness in one package.
The director clearly intended to honor the 1933 film, and for the most part, he has. The problem is that he’s honoring not just what the movie was in 1933, but what it has become since then in our collective pop-culture consciousness. When King Kong came out in 1933, it was a somewhat different experience than it seems from the vantage point of 70-plus years later. That’s in part because movies that were frightening years ago have become cozily familiar old friends now. But it’s also because of changes made to the film in subsequent releases.
It used to be a common practice to re-release popular titles to theaters — a practice that posed a problem for films made in the early 1930s. What was permissible in the early years of sound was often not so after 1934, when the Production Code came into being. To re-issue a film after that point, the movie had to be made to conform to those later censorship standards, meaning that the films were often recut to remove “offensive” material.
As a result, later releases of King Kong were shorn of scenes of violence and sexuality. Footage of Kong undressing Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and subjecting her to some rather indelicate scrutiny were taken out, as were scenes of Kong chomping on natives and grinding them underfoot. (Ironically, no one caught the fact that Fay Wray’s top comes off when she emerges from the water at one point, meaning we actually see more of her anatomy than we do of Naomi Watts in these less-censorious times.)
If you see the movie today, you see it as it was originally released, since the censored footage was cut back into it in the early ’70s. But the film attained much of its legendary status in its truncated form, which made King Kong less threatening, less horrific and more sympathetic than he had been when the film was made. Kong was always as much victim as monster, but he was a monster — something that’s largely absent in Jackson’s version, which plays up the sympathy angle.
Moreover, Jackson’s film buys into the fantastic notion put forth by several essayists over the years that there’s a bond between the big fellow and Ann Darrow — a nonsensical notion, since the original Ann Darrow spends the entire film screaming her head off whenever she deals with Kong. The one comment she makes about him is, “I don’t like to look at him, Jack. It reminds me of that horrible day on the island” — hardly an expression of simian devotion. Jackson’s Ann (Watts) is a different proposition, one grounded in the bonding idea.
That change is understandable, since the days of selling a mere “damsel in distress” are long over. Making Darrow a more active participant in the proceedings is only reasonable. The problem is that this not only robs Kong of even more menace, but — as with so much of the film — Jackson takes it too far. By the time the new Darrow puts herself in harm’s way a second time (and after Kong has taken pains to try to keep her safe), the film topples over into absurdity. Again, you expect the ape himself to utter a complaint: “Good Lord, woman, won’t you please stay put?” (I won’t even get into the gentle breeze atop the Empire State Building that merely ruffles Darrow’s skirt in a decorous manner.)
Setting the new film in 1933 was smart. The story works better in that time period, not in the least because disposing of an overgrown gorilla posed a considerably greater problem then than it would now. And Jackson’s film brilliantly captures the era, though one might rightly question the choice of the late-1940s Decca recording of Al Jolson’s “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” on the soundtrack to set the mood rather than the 1925 Brunswick version. (There’s an even more debatable use of a 1950s Peggy Lee recording of “Bye Bye Blackbird” elsewhere in the film.)
Many of Jackson’s expansions are well-judged. In the original, it was never clear how filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) planned to give his latest documentary a love interest and a plot by simply dragging along an actress and a trunk of costumes. Turning seaman Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) into playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who’s along to write the script, and throwing in a leading man, Bruce Baxter (TV actor Kyle Chandler), makes more sense. It’s also a bit cheeky on two levels. Making Ann’s romantic interest a writer is almost certainly a nod to Fay Wray’s real-life penchant for marrying writers (John Monk Saunders, Robert Riskin) or becoming involved with them (Clifford Odets). The inclusion of a preening leading man (named Bruce, no less) suggests a casual distaste for Bruce Cabot as the hero in the original — a suspicion aggravated by Cabot being the only star of the original not included in the film’s dedication!
There’s room for criticizing the changes to the character of Carl Denham (now played by Jack Black), who is much more an unsympathetic, egomaniacal opportunist here than in the original. Black’s Denham has more in common with other unregenerate characters of the era — think of turning newspaper editor Walter Burns in The Front Page into a filmmaker — than he does with Armstrong’s characterization. If it is wrong-headed, it’s nonetheless deliberate. This Denham is actually given a line originally assigned to a newspaper photographer — “Let him roar! It makes a great picture” — that helps to fuel Kong’s fury to the point that he breaks loose and runs riot in New York, making Denham even more culpable. (That this Denham sometimes resembles Jackson himself is another point to ponder on a self-awareness level.)
The addition of a sub-plot involving a sailor (Evan Parke, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) and his young protege (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot) is a strange case of the film wanting to stretch its fantasy/adventure quality and imbue it with some deeper meaning (the protege is reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and finally realizes it’s not really an adventure story at all). But this doesn’t really go anywhere.
The screen time devoted to this subplot would have been better used explaining the rift between Darrow and Driscoll that exists by the time they get back to New York. And it would have certainly helped to have incorporated Denham into the film’s last act. As it stands, he simply vanishes once Kong escapes and then wanders back into the film to deliver the famous last line — and it feels sloppy, as if someone remembered he needed to return for that purpose at the last minute.
Fans of the original should be delighted by the choice of recreating the original film’s “sacrifice” of Darrow as the “bride of Kong” as part of the stage show Denham puts on with the ape in New York. But this is a double-edged sword, since the use of the original Max Steiner score on the soundtrack for these scenes calls attention to the fact that James Newton Howard’s new score is rarely more than serviceable. (In fairness to the composer, he was called in at the last minute to score the film after a falling out between Jackson and composer Howard Shore.) Fans of Jackson will get a kick out of a crate labeled, “Sumatran Rat Monkey,” a reference to Jackson’s zombie movie, Dead Alive (aka Braindead).
Of course, it’s a simple matter to pick the movie apart. You can do the same with the original — starting with questioning why you’d build a wall to keep a giant ape out and then include a door big enough for him to come through (not to mention how you kept from becoming monkey chow while the wall was being built). I’m inclined to cut the movie some slack in a lot of areas, because it does have a cumulative mythic power, regardless of any missteps.
King Kong is, however, a flawed work — sometimes in surprising ways. While the new Kong himself is a marvel (I never felt I was looking at an effect, but at a living creature), the dinosaurs are another matter. They come across as something less than believable — more like escapees from Jurassic Park than anything to do with King Kong — and the effects in the frankly preposterous stampede are wanting. Still, Jackson’s King Kong is overall a pretty impressive show that definitely deserves to be seen in its theatrical incarnation. This is not a movie to wait for on DVD. Rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke