|King Kong (2-Disc Special Edition) (2005)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 28 March 2006|
For long-time moviegoers, it’s still a bit surprising to see a major film like the 2005 “King Kong” turning up on video so soon after its theatrical release. For long-time video buffs, this well-produced 2-disc set will be welcome and disappointing in about equal amounts.
There’s little doubt that this gigantic production—by some measures, the most expensive movie ever made—will receive the video treatment of director Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. First the decent but not showy video release—this one—and later, there’s sure to be a much more splendiferous DVD package. Perhaps it will include the production diaries Jackson and his team posted on there KongIsKing.com website—although they’re already available in a separate DVD of their own.
Here, we get the post-production diaries, kept by Jackson and his team following the wrapping of principal photography—although since this period included some reshoots, stars Adrian Brody, Naomi Watts and Jack Black (as well as supporting players) also appear here. If you’re interested in movie-making, these Jackson diaries reveal much more about the making of movies than almost any other DVD source—barring, of course, Robert Rodriguez’s special-edition DVDs.
There’s also a tongue-in-cheek, but absolutely straight-faced documentary on the natural history of Skull Island, where Carl Denham and his team find King Kong and a whole lot of dinosaurs. If you listen carefully, you learn that Denham made a return trip to Skull Island, and that, like in “Son of Kong” way back in 1933, the island sank into the sea. Perhaps Jackson is ensuring he won’t have to do a sequel. This mockumentary is entertaining, but could have been longer.
“Kong’s New York: 1933” is a brisk, compact depiction of the city that Jackson and his team recreated in miniatures and digitally down in New Zealand; not a frame was shot in the real New York.
The DVD presentation of the movie itself is everything you could ask for: splendid, room-filling sound, a crisp image with all colors and a full gray scale. But with a movie as epic is this, it invariably loses something when seen on a home theater screen, no matter how large. And unless you stuff your front room with all your friends, relatives and passersby, you’ll miss out on the shared excitement of sitting in a darkened theater with a responsive audience.
Nonetheless, the movie retains most of its power—although the opening hour now seems too long. It raises issues it never deals with, as regarding the boy who lives aboard the ship and his reading Conrad. All this, and his warm relationship with the first mate, seems to be set up for a later payoff—but there isn’t any. Since the story is otherwise taut and linear, if long, this material seems especially intrusive and tends to drag on the pace.
“I’m someone you can trust, Ann,” Carl Denham (Jack Black) assures penniless actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts)—“I’m a movie producer.”
Perhaps not the soundest assurance the enterprising Denham could have offered, but if Peter Jackson ever says this to you, believe him. The 1933 “King Kong” is what inspired Jackson to become an all-round (director, producer, writer) filmmaker, and he’s paid tribute to his inspiration by remaking it. This gigantic production is in no sense intended to supplement the original film), but to stand beside it on the shelf, which it will do, and proudly.
Director Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Jackson and Philippa Boyce, have expanded on the original. The first one is about 100 minutes; this one is 188 minutes, but it’s rarely slow. It’s full of ideas, action and humor, but after the first hour, the core of the movie tries something impossible, something that just couldn’t work—and yet it does, and work extremely well.
It’s about two lonely people who find each other. One is a 25-foot-tall gorilla, the other a slender blonde, but this is really what the movie is about, and it is what gives it a powerful emotional resonance that the original film didn’t even attempt. However, Jackson couldn’t have made the attempt without the original to draw on, for King Kong is now a part of the world’s cultural heritage. The giant gorilla, the blonde, the dinosaurs, the Empire State Building, the biplanes—these images and ideas are burned into our collective consciousness. Jackson knew that going in, so he didn’t merely replicate them—he expanded on them, telling the story that was always implicit in the material.
Carl Denham is a breezy filmmaker who wants to make a new movie even though his most recent isn’t yet finished. (Or is there only one movie? This isn’t quite clear.) When he eavesdrops on the money guys and learns he’s about to be fired, he and assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) grab the film cans and head for the Venture, the animal-transport ship Denham has hired to take him and his team to Sumatra. But his leading actress has skipped town. He has the costumes, so he has to find someone to fit them.
We’ve already met spunky singer-comedienne Ann Darrow, who’s just been fired from her latest gig. Her much older partner is giving up and heading back to Chicago, even though he knows, as he tells her, “ever since you were small, people been letting you down.” She keeps hoping to meet her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll.
Denham has already been working with Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who’s about to leave the ship when Denham sets sail, deliberately trapping the writer aboard. Most of the early section is different from the original movie, and occupies just over an hour of the movie’s running time. The dialogue is strong, relationships are established and/or develop, and we get to know all these characters as individuals, making their later fates of importance to us—but there’s too much of all this.
Denham’s real destination, of course, is Skull Island, a mysterious, isolated and uncharted isle where he’s sure he can find great stuff for his movie. He does: a really primitive tribe and a great big wall cutting right across the harsh volcanic island. The hostile natives kidnap Ann and melodramatically offer her to their god, Kong—a giant silverback gorilla. Only Denham sees what they’re up against as he leads a party from the ship in pursuit of Kong and Ann; he also carefully takes along a camera and supply of film. The others are armed with rifles, Lugers and tommy guns—state of the art equipment for the early 1930s.
The movie sweeps along alternating thrills, laughs and icky stuff—very icky at times. Some major thrills come when Denham, Driscoll, Hayes, Jimmy and the others are pursued down a narrow canyon by stampeding brontosauruses, themselves being chased by fleet, vicious raptors. It’s a mad tumble of images, like a freeway pileup of long-necked elephants.
Kong takes Ann to a high cliff; when she tries to sneak way, he flies into a fury, smashing the ground, ripping boulders out of the cliff and roaring in her face—but, she notices, he is careful never to harm her. She realizes he’s fascinated by her, not vaguely sexually as in the 1933 version, but on a simpler, more tender level—he seems to just want a companion. So she does something that seems like it couldn’t work, and yet it does: she goes into her vaudeville routine. The big gorilla is at first puzzled, and then fascinated, then delighted. He even does something that astonished me: King Kong LAUGHS.
This sequence alone would have guaranteed a special effects Oscar.
The icky stuff begins when Ann is menaced by four-foot centipedes, what look like colossal tuataras (New Zealand reptiles), big spiders and other enlarged vermin. Finally she’s confronted by not one, not two, but THREE hungry T-rexes that Kong has to battle to rescue her. They smash through a jungle, tumble down an incline and plunge into a deep crevasse laced with vines. Kong, the dinosaurs and Ann are all caught in them, swinging back and forth almost within reach (or biting distance) of each other. This is an astonishing scene, as funny as it is exciting.
But the most impressive, deeply moving scenes on the island are those featuring just Ann Darrow and Kong, all alone on a cliff. It’s very clear that Kong is an old, old gorilla, the last of his kind (there are skulls of huge apes in his cave), and he’s deeply, tragically LONELY. In an almost wordless scene, he and Ann look out over the island at sunset; it’s obvious that Kong loves the view. A giant gorilla with an esthetic sense is something I wasn’t expecting, one of the many ideas in this movie that expand it in original and creative ways.
When Driscoll does rescue Ann and take her to the shore, she’s angry to see that Denham and Englehorn are intent on capturing Kong. The battle to this end is disturbing, as the old, old gorilla is finally brought down by forces he does not understand.
In New York, Denham’s big show is even bigger than in the original; this comes complete with dancers, music and bright lights. Yes, Kong does escape, but he has to look for Ann in a city he doesn’t understand. What happens from here to the end is both like and very different from the original; it’s not an improvement, but it’s an equivalent accomplishment in its own terms
There are good ideas scattered throughout the movie; it opens with the sound of Al Jolson singing “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” as we see some dispirited animals, then that they’re in a zoo, then that the zoo is bordered by a “Hoovertown” of displaced homeless people. Toward the end, Peggy Lee’s poignant version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” underscores contrasting scenes of Kong and Ann. An amazing scene in Central Park near the end links “King Kong” and—of all unlikely pairings—Disney’s great “Bambi.” A lot of creativity was employed on this movie.
Not just the effects are impressive, but the filmmaking itself is outstanding. As Watts approaches the Venture, there’s a momentary pause as she puts her foot on the gangplank, a moment that will change her life forever. Jackson gives this the faintest of emphasis, but it’s palpable. Surround sound, mainly the rear speakers, gets a showy, effective workout in the scene in which Denham sees Kong for the first time. The climax atop the Empire State Building involves swift camera moves, shattering glass and effects which work on an EMOTIONAL level
Some reviewers have complained about Jack Black’s performance as Carl Denham, and there’s something to this. The fault isn’t in the performance, but in the actor and the text. Robert Armstrong’s Denham was a bold adventurer who also made movies; Black’s Armstrong is a user, a conniver, brave but never warm. It’s obvious he doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself or about anything other than his movie.
Similarly, Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a far cry from the working-class, woman-shy Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) of the original. This guy’s something of an intellectual, blindsided by falling in love with Ann on the sea voyage, ready to devote all his energies to her rescue.
But the outstanding performance is by Naomi Watts, who gets top billing and deserves it. Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow was a chip floating on a raging current, a captive of circumstance, not a participant in it. Watts’ Darrow is more aware of what exactly is happening to her, more in tune with her (unquestionably more sympathetic) Kong, willing to try to understand what the big ape needs, willing to view him as a hero as much as a menace. She knows that even though everyone else has always let her down, King Kong will be there for her. He is her friend, and more than anything else, this movie celebrates that friendship.
The three hours of “King Kong” flash by, full of wonderful, jaw-dropping sights of huge creatures in conflict, a giant ape loose in the streets of Manhattan, and the unforgettable climax. Is “King Kong” up to the level of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy? Technically, yes—it probably surpasses those films. But not dramatically; this is an adventure tale with uncomplicated characters; it’s not a monumental epic of invented history, populated with conflicted, troubled heroes. The “Rings” movies had a gigantic book (or books) to draw upon; this has an old if wonderful movie; it can’t reach the many levels, polish the many facets of the “Rings” movies. But what Jackson’s “King Kong” does, it does with style, affection, intelligence and panache; it’s the thrill of a lifetime, an exciting paean to movies past.