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King Kong (2005) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 14 December 2005
“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—brilliantly. This gigantic production is in no sense intended to supplement the original film (just out in excellent form on DVD for the first time), but to stand beside it on the shelf.

Director Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Jackson and Philippa Boyce, have expanded on the original—by quite a bit. The first one is about 100 minutes; this one is 187 minutes, but it’s never slow. It’s full of ideas, action and humor, but the core of the movie is 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. Nor could Jackson 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. Or maybe somewhere else.

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.
Manhattan is laced with the homeless, soup lines wind along the bases of the big buildings, people are camped out on doorsteps—prospects don’t look good for Ann. Then Denham helps her when she’s caught swiping an apple—she hasn’t eaten in some time—and offers her the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage.

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. He’s also taking along egocentric actor Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), who brings along golf clubs and a supply of posters for movies starring him.

Also aboard are intelligent Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), a specialist in capturing animals, his tough first mate Hayes (Evan Park), and young Jimmy (Jamie Bell), who’s reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

Most of this is different from the original movie, and occupies just over an hour of the movie’s running time—but it’s all good stuff. 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.

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 story charges on from here with embellishments and expansions. Kong is summoned not just by drums but by fire that cascades down the inner side of the giant stone wall. We barely glimpse the big guy when he first shows up, and instead see the jungle she’s being carried through from Ann’s perspective as she’s toted along in Kong’s big hand.

Only Denham sees what they’re up against as he leads a party from the ship in pursuit of Kong (which is what the natives call him) 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. The effects here aren’t as superb as elsewhere in the film, but that’s an extremely minor complaint.

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. (All this animation was based on the movements of Andy Serkis, who deserves SOME kind of Oscar.) He even does something that astonished me: King Kong LAUGHS. Yes, real gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans often laugh; this is entirely authentic, if on an impressively large scale.

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. (This sequence make reference to the original in an impish manner.) Yes, Kong does escape, but he has to look for Ann in a city he doesn’t understand. Driscoll commandeers a taxi and tries to lure Kong—but where? 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. And here, Kong gets to do something he didn’t do in the first version: he stands on the very utmost top of the Empire State Building, swatting at the biplanes attacking him.

The film is scattered with nods to the original; running through a list of possible actresses, Denham suggests “Fay,” but Preston says she’s doing something for RKO. “For Cooper?” Denham growls. “I might have figured.” In an animal cage full of chloroform, a few of the gas bombs from the first film can be seen. There’s a poster for Cooper-Schoedsack’s “Chang” somewhere in there, and snatches of Max Steiner’s masterful score for the first one are occasionally heard. The scene we see Denham shooting on the ship could have been for the original “Kong.” But the strongest tribute Jackson makes to his beloved “King Kong” 1933 is that he’s made a hell of a good movie.

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. When the natives board the ship to kidnap her, they reach the deck by POLE-VAULTING through crashing waves. 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. The sound of a breaking glass links to the prow of the ship cutting through the waves. 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 work that works on an EMOTIONAL level. The editing is fluid and dynamic, pulling us from exactly the right shot to the next one in a flow as smooth as a rapid river.

In addition to the gorilla/dinosaur/whatever effects, CGI is magically used to recreate 1930s Manhattan. The film was shot entirely on green screen sets in New Zealand, but that’s almost impossible to accept when we see the reality of New York spread out before us, photographically real, authentic. The entire film has a burnished quality that goes beyond realism into interpretation of reality—into art. This is a film to be seen several times; you can’t possibly grasp all the good stuff the first time through.

There are a few slips, nothing important. Denham says, “Monsters belong in B Movies.” Maybe, but in 1932 they didn’t, and I don’t think the term “B Movie” even existed then. I know “abominable snowman” didn’t, yet Lumpy the ship’s cook (Andy Serkis) says that’s what left Kong’s footprint. The effects are occasionally effects-y, but they’re still leagues beyond what anyone else is doing. Compare this to “Chronicles of Narnia”—that also has fine effects, but they’re just not THIS good.

Some reviewers have complained about Jack Black’s performance as Carl Denham, but I thought he hit the mark precisely. No, this isn’t the same bold Denham of the original, memorably embodied by Robert Armstrong; this is a cagier, more urban Denham, more like the young Orson Welles than Merian C. Cooper (creator of Kong, and on whom Armstrong based his performance). This Denham is even more devoted to his movie, hauling along the camera in pursuit of Kong, even more ruthless, more intent on the job. But when it matters, he’s just as courageous.

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.

The supporting roles are all well cast, well played. A few years ago, Jamie Bell dazzled the world in and as “Billy Elliot;” his role here isn’t as showy, but it’s just as well-played—even if I did lose track of his character after a while. I am unfamiliar with the other performances of Thomas Kretschmann and Evan Parke, both both are exceptionally good here, particularly Parke. Kyle Chandler makes his movie star something much more than a stereotype—though those elements are used well, too.

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. Peter Jackson isn’t just the current wunderkind of movies, he approaches movies in a matter-of-fact, can-do manner unseen in Hollywood since the 1930s. He decides on a project, budgets it, hires the people to do it, and then simply proceeds to do it without any fuss, with little evident strain. And he does this on the other side of the world from Hollywood, way out of the reach of studio interference.

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 just 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 one of the most entertaining movies ever made.

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