Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann
Directed by Peter Jackson
What is it about King Kong that causes audiences to root for him as he stands atop the Empire State Building even though we already know the inevitable outcome? Why do we care so much about a monster? After absorbing Peter Jackson’s new take on the legend, I can only think of one word: intimacy. The quiet moments of understanding forged in the midst of chaos and mayhem.
“Oh please,” you must be thinking. “King Kong cost over $200 million to make, has dinosaurs stampeding across the screen, and let’s not forget about that 25-foot ape. How in the world can a movie like that be anything approaching intimate?” It’s all thanks to three people: Peter Jackson, Naomi Watts, and Andy Serkis. By now everyone has read how Serkis was “there” for Watts during her crucial scenes with Kong, resulting in a believability and reality that is often sadly lacking in movies of this type. But that’s still not the full picture. What really seals the deal is the fact that besides Ann Darrow, we, the audience, are the only people who can see Kong as something other than a violent and primitive creature to be feared. Yes, he is a brutal killer. But he is also imbued with personality plus and a tender side. We believe we know him and can trust him.
Maybe that’s why I felt some anger directed at Ann’s character toward the end of the film. Wasn’t there anything she could have done to save him? Instead of wasting precious time frolicking in a winter wonderland, why didn’t she try to help him escape and hide from those who sought to destroy him? But that’s just modern-day idealism. In the 1930s there was no CNN or other huge news outlet for her to seek out and tell her story to. Besides, no one listened to women back then anyway. As we’ve seen time and time again in films — and in real life as well — human beings have a nasty habit of killing the things they fear and don’t understand. But those of us who took the journey with Ann see things differently. We know that while Kong is certainly dangerous, under the right conditions it’s possible to live in harmony with him. So long as everyone acknowledges he is the King of the Jungle — or New York City or wherever else he might want to go.
Alas, that’s not the story Peter Jackson has to tell. There can be no happy ending for Kong. He is to be the last of his line. But what a swan song! The love and respect Jackson and his team have for the original King Kong is evident in every frame. The script is full of one homage after another, and leaving the setting for the story in the Depression era serves the film quite well. It keeps the sense of exploration and adventure palpable and also makes the melodrama inherent in the tale easier to swallow. Much like James Cameron’s Titanic, every detail in King Kong was obviously researched quite thoroughly.
As you would expect, Jackson assembled a crack team of editors, sound designers, FX compositors, and makeup artists. Their work on this film is among the best I have ever seen. The sets and wardrobe are impeccable. Whoever designed that flimsy nightgown Naomi wore throughout the Skull Island sequence definitely deserves an award. She got completely wet three times; crawled through the mud; and swung from vines, Kong’s fingers, and a dinosaur’s teeth; and not once did we see any body parts we shouldn’t have. Somebody needs to patent and mass-produce that gown immediately!
As for the cast, when I first heard Naomi Watts would be playing the role of Ann Darrow, I was disappointed. I had hoped Jackson would pick an unknown or at least someone less familiar. Boy, was I proven wrong! Compare the 1976 remake with a woefully inexperienced Jessica Lange trying to fill Fay Wray’s shoes with today’s version. There is no question that Naomi is at the top of her game. From her opening vaudeville scenes all the way through to her final moments on the Empire State Building, there is not a single false note in her performance. She gets down and dirty in the jungle and still looks radiant. She is indeed a worthy heir to Wray’s title of “Scream Queen.”
In fact, every single actor in the film seems to have been born to play his or her part. Jack Black is a most effective Carl Denham; he is the epitome of insincere sincerity. Adrien Brody is an inspired choice for the unlikely hero of the piece, writer Jack Driscoll. And it’s especially nice to have the opportunity to actually see Andy Serkis for a change. His portrayal of Lumpy, the ship’s cook, provides a nice bit of comic relief — and one of the most squirm-inducing scenes in the film. I also especially enjoyed the performance of Evan Parke as Mr. Hayes. Next to Naomi, I’d have to say he injected the most heart into the proceedings with his character’s integrity and concern for young Jimmy.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear you saying. All that stuff about acting and deep meaning and everything is great, but what about the dinosaurs and bugs and Kong himself? How do they look? I think you already know the answer. It is, after all, Weta we’re talking about here. But for posterity’s sake, I’ll put it in writing: They are stupendous! They push the envelope beyond anything we’ve ever seen before — and then go even further. Sure, there are moments when the lines between live action and CGI are evident, but overall King Kong is a remarkable achievement. I am still in awe at the sheer audacity of the things the folks at Weta came up with to even attempt in this film — much less the skill with which they were able to pull them off.
And to reiterate what many others have said before me: Yes, this is indeed a horror film. It’s full of enough scary images and hideous creepy crawlies to invade the nightmares of at least the next few generations. Take for instance the natives. Their frenzy and agitation while offering up Ann to Kong is a sight to behold! And while we do catch glimpses of his sensitive side, this is no watered-down or neutered big hairy ape. Kong kills people. A lot of people. Brutally. Animalistically. Without regard or remorse. Also without much blood, but that was to be expected. The scenario itself is frightening enough.
So, amid all this praise, is there anything not perfect about Kong? At times it veers dangerously close to over-sentimentality, and I do feel the three-hour runtime is a bit stretched. It could easily have been cut by 10 minutes or so without losing any of its impact, especially some of the scenes between Ann and Kong in the third act. I completely understand what Jackson was going for, but those long, drawn-out looks between the two of them could have been tightened up a bit. On the big screen, information like that is conveyed instantaneously; save the extended scenes for the DVD where you don’t have the luxury of a theatre setting. And while I do agree with the people grumbling about Ann’s lack of a coat during the finale, I’m mostly willing to overlook that and chalk it up to artistic license.
There are two great moments of chivalry in King Kong. The first is when Jack convinces the men of the Venture to put aside concern for their own safety and return to the island with him to search for Ann. The second is when Kong fights off the three V-Rexes to save her. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that while of course the love Kong feels for Ann is doomed, it is just as real as the feelings Jack has for her. It may be that beauty is what killed the beast, but it is also what gave him, for a few brief moments anyway, a joy and contentment he had never before known. Much like the feeling I had myself as the final credits rolled. As a moviegoer, you certainly can’t ask for more than that!
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