King Kong (2005)


             Back in 1933, when the first version of KING KONG hit the screens, the film industry was barely hitting
     adolescence. Some two years in the making, the version released during the Great Depression hit movie screens
     only a couple of years after sound had been introduced. Even by virtue of the technological leaps of computer-
     generated imagery (CGI) and other special effects techniques, the original retains a raw power that cannot
     be duplicated. (Don’t believe me? Get your hands on the recently released DVD.) Producer Dino De Laurentiis
     attempted to recapture that feeling with an ill-advised remake in 1976 that featured the World Trade Center.
     Even before he tackled
THE LORD OF THE RINGS, New Zealander Peter Jackson had been angling
     to remake
KING KONG but budgetary issues caused an impasse. After the worldwide success of
     THE LORD OF THE RINGS, including multiple Oscar wins, Jackson more or less had his pick of projects,
     so he returned to his dream venture and now we have the results in the multiplexes.

             The 2005 edition of
KING KONG pays homage to the original by recreating some shots and making brief
     dialogue reference to actress Fay Wray and writer-director Merian C. Cooper. It also strives to set new
     standards for visual effects and storytelling.  The 1933 version ran a brisk 100 minutes, while the remake padded
     it out with an additional 37 minutes. Jackson’s take clocks in at a butt-numbing 187 minutes. As with his Tolkein
     trilogy, there sometimes CAN be too much of a good thing.

             The film begins with a glorious Art Deco credits sequence underscored by James Newton Howard’s
     evocative score. Then, Jackson audaciously begins the film with close-ups of various primates while Al Jolson
     is heard crooning “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Gradually the camera moves back and reveals that the
     animals are denizens of a zoo and nearby are homeless people living in Hooverville. (Director Ron Howard
     actually recreated that aspect of American history better in a sequence in
CINDERELLA MAN.) We then see
     a vaudeville act in progress featuring Ann Darrow (a luminous Naomi Watts) performing a take on Chaplin’s
     Little Tramp. Fairly quickly, though, Ann faces the bread lines when the theater is forced to close. The audience
     then meets the driven filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, whose modern sensibility doesn’t quite fit the period).
     I suppose Denham is supposed to evoke the “troubled genius,” along the lines of Orson Welles, but the character
     doesn’t fully gel. Jack Black has such a clearly defined screen persona that it is more than jarring watching him
     emoting.

             His producers want to pull the plug on Denham’s latest movie, but he refuses to give up. A chance meeting
     with Ann Darrow leads to her agreeing to accept the lead role, particularly when she learns that noted playwright
     Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing the screenplay. Through a various manipulations, Denham gets both Darrow
     and Driscoll on board a tramp steamer which sets off for the Far East.

             After nearly an hour, during which additional figures are introduced like Denham’s assistant Preston (Colin
     Hanks), Darrow’s co-star, the lantern-jawed ham actor Bruce Baxter (wonderfully embodied by Kyle Chandler),
     and various members of the crew, notably the ship’s crusty captain (Thomas Kretschmann), the cook (Andy Serkis
     who did double duty as the motion-capture figure of Kong), the first mate (Evan Parke) and a youthful stowaway
     turned crewman (Jamie Bell).

             By the time the ship arrives at Skull Island for Act II, the stage has been set: Ann and Jack have engaged in a
     tentative flirtation after a rocky start, the captain has learned that Denham is a charlatan with a warrant out for his
     arrest, and the first mate and the stowaway have a sort of mentor/protégé relationship. Once on Skull Island,
     however, things get dicey. The crew runs afoul of the natives who more than resemble refugees from a George
     Romero zombie film. They kill a couple of crewmen (including the film’s sound man) and take Ann hostage, intent
     on sacrificing her to the giant primate. When Kong finally makes his appearance after more than an hour, the wait is
     more than worth it. He’s large and ferocious and looks battered. Part of his left ear is missing and he’s covered
     with battle scars. He also becomes quite taken with Ann – the first blonde woman he’s seen. Rather than kill her,
     he develops a strange bond with her. She attempts to entertain him by doing dance steps and juggling routines from
     her vaudeville act. It’s at this point that Jackson manages to create the relationship that forms the core of the movie.
     Watts does yeoman work and is quite believable as she feels compassion for her captor.

             There’s plenty of action on Skull Island, including a dinosaur stampede, Kong’s battle with a trio of
     Tyrannosaurus Rex monsters who chase Ann, and the realization of a sequence that was planned for the original
     film but later abandoned – where various insects, including oversized spiders and locusts attack the crew
     members. The denouement of this section is, of course, the capture of the giant gorilla, and that sequence is
     horrifying to watch. (It’s also noteworthy that the island natives seemingly disappear after sacrificing Ann; they
     are nowhere to be seen when the dinosaurs attack or when Kong follows Ann and Jack out of the jungle toward
     the sea.)

             The final sequences are set in New York City, with Times Square meticulously recreated. Denham’s film is
     ruined but he arrives back in Manhattan to present Kong in a sort of kitschy stage recreation of Ann’s rescue.
     Only when the gorilla realizes it isn’t Ann with whom he’s sharing the stage, he goes on a rampage. Eventually he
     and Ann are reunited in a sequence that reminded me of a perfume commercial – Ann emerging from the night
     shadows to step into the light which catches her blonde hair and her all-white ensemble.

             There’s a poignant set piece with Ann and Kong on a frozen park lake that is shattered by the reality of
     gunfire. And, of course, there’s Kong’s final ascent up the side of the Empire State Building where he does battle
     with the airplanes that will eventually lead to his demise. What I found strange was that as he was running through
     the city, he destroyed buildings and their facades with a wave of his paw, but when he climbed up the side of the
     Empire State Building … nothing happened. The structure remained remarkably intact. Wouldn’t it stand to reason
     that if he destroyed everything he touched, that as he climbed up the side, he’d do some sort of damage? (I know,
     I’m being too logical, but it did mar my enjoyment of the film.)

             There are a number of gaps and many characters from the voyage who are dropped. We see Denham
     offering a partnership to the ship’s captain, but once back in Manhattan, there’s no sign of the captain or any of
     the surviving crew members. Except for a brief appearance by Preston, the last act is focused almost entirely on
     Kong, Ann (who is now a chorus girl) and Jack (who pines for Ann but never told her of his feelings).

             Jackson’s version of Kong has much to admire but I didn’t feel it completely succeeded. It’s too long, too
     episodic and much of it is focused on set pieces that don’t add to the main story. It appears from the script that
     the intention was to create a sort of triangular love affair between Jack, Ann and Kong. We see Kong’s
     acknowledgement of Jack as a rival but there’s very little heat between Brody and Watts. Indeed, she has much
     better chemistry with Kong, which throws the rooting value off a little.

             During the long patches when my mind began to wander, thanks to the repetitiveness of the effects (like the
     Brontosaurus stampede and Kong’s battle with the dinosaurs), I passed the time finding connections among the
     cast, like the fact that Jack Black and Colin Hanks played brothers in
ORANGE COUNTY, or that Thomas
     Kretschmann was the Nazi officer who discovered Adrien Brody’s Wladyslaw Szpilman in
THE PIANIST, or
     I took note of how Jackson wasted the talents of Jamie Bell who is developing into an intriguing actor (see
     UNDERTOW).

             Like the original, this version of
KING KONG sets a standard of technological achievement via its
     state-of-the-art visual effects. Jackson’s decisions to flesh out the tale was a good impulse, I just wish he had
     had a stronger impulse for editing his films. Sometimes, bigger isn’t necessarily better.


                                Rating:                                B-
                                MPAA Rating:                    PG-13 for frightening adventure violence
                                                                                           and some disturbing images
                                Running time:                      187 mins.


                                              Viewed at the Universal Screening Room
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.