Film Reviews

KING KONG (Dennis)

By • Dec 5th, 2005 •

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Universal Pictures / A Wingnut Films production
MPAA rating PG-13 / Running time 188 minutes

I was talking with my colleague and friend Mark Ross about the disappointing first day box office tally on Peter Jackson’s new remake of KING KONG. Like many, I thought it would turn out to be #1 or at least #2 of all time. After all, the buzz was astonishing! All over the Internet I was reading about how wonderful the film was and how big it was going to be! The next TITANIC! The trailer and scenes that have been posted, along with all the hype and history about the production on had Mark and I salivating in eager anticipation! We knew it was going to be a history-making-blockbuster-first-day-of-release-cash-cow.

Not so.

It ranks #21 on the all time list…with films like POKEMAN THE MOVIE and MEN IN BLACK II beating it out! I was quite astonished by this. Not Mark. He said, “Well, I don’t find that to be so strange. After all, anyone under 40 probably doesn’t care as much about the film as we do. We grew up with it.” What he said really made me think, “Geez, how true! And…how sad.” That means that the original 1933 film is slowly sinking into the cultural abyss. A place where it won’t be held with the same reverence by the same number of people.

Link here to see the overall first day take and list rating:

When I was a youngster, back in the days when there were only 8 TV channels, the 1933 KING KONG was a staple of the holiday season, New York’s channel 9 used to run KING KONG every Thanksgiving, along with SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. It was the major reason why I loved Thanksgiving!!! These movies were ingrained into my DNA. There was even a glorious time when Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie would run KING KONG at the same time, 5 days a week! Let’s face it; KING KONG was an annual event…a monumental moment of epic bliss. I also was in love with Fay Wray. She was hot, bro! To this day, the scene where KONG peels off her clothes and smells his finger is quite the turn on. The helpless white woman in the clutches of the monster! It still gives me wood.

Most important of all, it was scary. Honest. The black and white cinematography, the jungle, the monsters, the death and destruction…all heavy stuff. The special effects were, in a word, “charming.” I mean, we all knew it was a stop motion animated ape, but Willis O’Brien gave him life, character and depth.

Mark and I work at an advertising agency in New York. We are media junkies. We are also huge film fanatics, with KONG being at the top of the list. Our coworkers have become sick and tired of us talking about it! Our offices are filled with posters, models…even our desktops and screensavers are all about KONG. The trailers and photos for the new film gave us chills. I actually wept when I saw the shot of KONG jumping up and knocking the shit out of one of the planes. Man oh man…we couldn’t WAIT to see what Peter Jackson was going to do! It was a no-lose scenario! He was turned on to the film as a child like we were. He was going to maintain its reverence, time period and philosophy. He was going to update it without ruining it (like Dino did with his remake…Jessica Lange not withstanding.)

I dug into the first few reviews that were posted online two days before the official release. Most critics simply adored it. In fact, it received the most universal praise I’ve seen in a long time. Except for some gripes about the length, all looked well.

I actually took a half-day off to make sure I was able to see KING KONG on its first day of release without having to wait on long lines. I bought my ticket online to make double sure I got a seat. The night before the glorious day I could hardly sleep with the excitement churning inside me.

Then…there I was. In my seat…dead center, half way up from the screen. The theater was only half full, since it was a workday and 11AM. No crying kids. No crowd of idiots talking loudly as if they were in their living rooms. It could not be more perfect. I was in heaven! Bring on the ape!

Rather than give a story synopsis that is familiar to all, I will concentrate on elements.

From the moment the credits begin, with their overall sense of 1930’s graphic design and kitsch, it is very apparent that Peter Jackson’s remake of KING KONG is going to treat its time period, setting and familiar storyline with reverence and respect, as well as a heartfelt belief in the magical wonders of the cinema.

The recreation of 1930’s New York is dead on, from the Hobo shantytowns, to the period clothing, to the language cadences of the time. In an effort to update the storyline while still maintaining respect for its familiar themes and history, Jackson chose to elaborate on the background of his characters. Ann Darrow is now a vaudevillian hoofer who has fallen on hard times. As played by Naomi Watts, she is the beautiful heart of the film and her performance is top notch, moving and believable. Yes…even within the midst of this cockamamie story…SHE is BELIEVABLE.

Carl Denham is still the megalomaniac movie producer/director of the original, but his motivations have become a bit more sleazy and egotistically self-centered. There’s a touch of Orson Welles in actor Jack Black’s eyes. Point of fact, I couldn’t really buy Jack Black as Carl Denham. He just felt miscast. Not that I don’t like Black…he can be quite engaging and hysterically funny in the right role. But Carl Denham he is not. He waters down the fire and machismo that Robert Armstrong brought to the 1933 version of the role and comes off as a bit of a fat creep.

Jack Driscoll has been upgraded from a first mate to a playwright (a la Eugene O’Neill) who is ship-napped by Denham so he can help write the screenplay as it happens during the adventure. As played by Adrian Brody, he is kinda foppish and doesn’t really have much to do but give Ann goo-goo eyes and always show up too late to save her.

Where I believe Jackson made a mistake is introducing other characters and plot elements that do nothing but slow down the first hour of the film. These include a father-figure type character to Ann that is neither explained, nor further developed after his initial appearance. A relationship between a sailor and a young boy is also introduced in an effort to make you care more about these shipmate characters destined to become dinosaur munchies, bug feces, etc. The sailor (who also happens to be an African-American) has taken this boy under his wing to teach him the wonders of literature (he has him reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness), which allows for bravery and courage metaphors galore when they arrive on the island.

I can’t help but wonder…did Jackson give this black sailor such cultural depth and intelligence to negate the stereotypes of the black man from that period in film history…not to mention an attempt to dilute that other tired old metaphor about KONG being a symbolic representation of the black who was stolen from his native land, put in chains and sold to slavery and torture? And let’s not even get into all that stuff about the black man kidnapping the lily-white woman, etc. etc. All I know is…it didn’t work, slowed things down, and was unnecessary.

Which brings us to KONG.

Mere words cannot describe the awe and majesty this CGI created giant gorilla encompasses. As digitally played by Andy Serkis, KONG is a revelation! For a creature that doesn’t even exist except in a computer, he has tremendous warmth, rage and…dare I say it…humanity. He is simply the most astonishing artificial creation I have ever seen in the cinema. Jackson pulled no punches and pulled out all the stops to create a KING KONG that is magical, believable and heartbreaking. From the moment he enters the screen, to his horrible death atop the Empire State Building, we are totally with him as a character and doomed figure. It is here that Jackson has performed a cinematic miracle. The team at WETA, Jackson’s FX Company, has done more than just create a KING KONG for the 21st Century, they have literally played GOD! KONG is REAL! 100% REAL! In every way imaginable. You BELIEVE. Regardless of the fact that no such creature has ever existed, you find yourself so totally enraptured by his presence and visual reality, that you become lost in it. What a tremendous feat of moviemaking! To create something so beautiful, so detailed, so utterly real, that you don’t even think about the fact that he doesn’t exist. HE DOES EXIST! This, combined with Naomi Watts empathy and connection to this non-existent CGI created KONG, make this story the greatest example of the Beauty and the Beast parable that has ever been filmed. The scenes between Ann Darrow and KONG are like watching a silent movie. It is all done through body language, facial expressions and eye contact. (I even read an article where a zoologist who studies apes was totally convinced in the KONG’s artificially created authenticity.)

There are scenes between KONG and Ann that are beautifully corny, yet heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil it for you…you’ll know what they are.

The island scenes in the jungle have their positive and negative aspects.

The Negatives: Did we really need a dinosaur stampede, with the giant behemoths falling all over each other in huge piles so fast and furious I couldn’t get focused on how they really looked? I know that Jackson wants to take out his paint box and dazzle the shit out of us, but sometimes it gets to be a bit too much! After going through so much to establish KONG’s believability as a character, he killed some of that credibility because NO ONE would have been able to survive being in the middle of a brontosaurus stampede, with a bunch of carnivorous dinos thrown in for good measure, snapping and clawing at our helpless heroes. I would have preferred he stuck to the original 1933 idea of running into a variety of dinosaurs, and having just one brontosaurus chasing after the men, both in the raft sequence (not repeated here) and the chase sequence. I know…I know…Jackson is trying to up the ante. Slow down son…we know you can impress us. Too much of a good thing Peter!

The Positives: The entire sequence with the T-Rex’s. Now, it’s not just one, but THREE! And KONG fights them all with Ann in his hand! This scene is just astonishing. I don’t want to give away much. All I can say is, he updates it magnificently in a very unique and believable way.

We also get the scene that was originally cut from the 1933 version where the men are attacked by giant spiders and bugs after being thrown from the log into the ravine.
This scene is truly horrifying and gut wrenching. (SPECIAL NOTE: Jackson’s team also re-created this edited scene for the 1933 version and it can be found in the extras section of the recent DVD release. It is lovingly recreated based on original models and storyboards. A true work of love and respect.)

Oh…and the natives are no longer stereotypical black jungle boogiemen. They are now a frightening clan of zombie-like aborigines. Chill inducing to the bone!

It is here where Jackson really shines. 1933 New York is lovingly reproduced, right down to the marquees and lights of Times Square. The scenes of KONG in chains on stage are given an all-new twist that works beautifully. He is a pathetic creature in these scenes…chained and miserable as a vaudeville show is performed in front of him. Jackson pays wonderful homage to the original by having the show be a recreation of the capture and jungle dance scenes from the 1933 film…including the same costumes and Max Steiner score. For those who know and love the 1933 film, it is a true delight.

Once KONG escapes and starts looking for Ann, we are given a spectacle of rage and destruction on the street of New York that is unmatched by any other monster-on-the-rampage-in-a-city film creation. KONG flings cars, destroys buildings, grabs and tosses people with reckless abandon. When he finds Ann, they have moments of tenderness and, believe it or not, fun, that will not leave one dry eye in the house.

And it all leads up to…

I am at a loss for words to describe how right, how dead on, how magnificent, and how awe-inspiring this…one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema…is recreated by Jackson. As I’ve mentioned before in this critique…it is 100% REAL. Jackson elongates the scene to give us every angle, every situation, every nuance we could ever ask for in this last moment on earth for KONG. I was totally captivated, mouth agape. I kept thinking,”I’m so lucky to be alive. To be able to sit here, in this theater, and see how this master craftsman has re-created this pinnacle moment in film history, giving it new life and depth and meaning.” It is the crowning achievement of the film and one of the most breathtaking, heartbreaking, amazing scenes I’ve ever seen put to film. You are THERE…at the top of the Empire State Building, with a giant ape fighting off biplanes. From every angle and point of reference, you are given a visual delight that is both beautiful and horrifyingly sad.

Peter Jackson’s KING KONG is the work of a man who is paying loving tribute to a film he loves, taking his audience along for the homage. If you loved the 1933 original, you’ll respect his efforts. For those who don’t hold the original film in any particular regard, you will just enjoy a great movie experience.

Flawed but still fabulous, this KING KONG is truly a wonder of the cinematic world.

KONGAHOLICS, Mark Ross & Dennis Daniel. Photo taken by Adam DiLerniaMARK ROSS, Dennis Daniel’s friend, chimes in….

I agree about Jack Black’s character. But all Jackson had to do about this
“fat creep” was have him in tears at the ending with realization that his
own self-destructive persona killed the most marvelous thing mankind had
ever seen.

The young boy and other characters on the boat would have worked better
had they been shown them in tuxedos at the introduction of Kong to the NYC audience.

Musical score. Coming out of the silent film era, there was more reliance on
music to support the imagery rather than sound effects. The original score,
especially at the ending, was much more dramatic and plot-enhancing, right
down to Kong’s landing on the 34th street.

King Kong is a baby-boomer infatuation. Given the current technologies of
1933, right through the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s when we watched Kong every
Thanksgiving, the stop animation worked, it WAS believable. This summer when I forced my sons (David and Daniel) to watch Kong one night in Montauk Point, they would laugh at the original versionwhen the crew fell into the ravine and bounce like Raggedy-Ann dolls, or when Kong fell and bounced several times off the ledges of the Empire State Building. I must agree, this could have been handled better. Recently, when I asked to see how excited they were to see Jackson’s version, they were disinterested. OUCH. “We don’t want to see a gorilla movie”, they said. OUCH. “But Jackson did this one, I said, hoping to win them over. “SOOOO?” they said. OUCH. With that, I fell off the Empire State Building. Fact is , I know when they see this version, they will thoroughly enjoy it. But it is unlikely they will give me the satisfaction of saying so. After all, teenage boys love not liking what their fathers like. It goes with the territory.

I am sure Jackson attempted to rectify a couple of mankind’s darkest moments. One being slavery. Having an African-American ship-mate who is well read mentoring a young white boy is a clear attempt to kill off an unacceptable part of human history which was symbolically documented in the original. Additionally, having Jack Driscoll become a sensitive screen-writer instead of a Bogart like tough guy is clearly an attempt to show that men have changed. (I always thought Kong was an analogy of the machismo in man.) The male lead actor’s role was an attempt to show just how foolish and untrue the tough guy really is further supporting this feeling.

Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschmann
Preston: Colin Hanks
Kong/Lumpy: Andy Serkis
Hayes: Evan Parke
Jimmy: Jamie Bell

Director: Peter Jackson
Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on the story by: Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Producers: Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Grant Major
Music: James Newton Howard
Co-producers: Philippa Boyens, Eileen Moran
Costumes: Terry Ryan
Editors: Jamie Selkirk, Jabez Olssen

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