Film Reviews

KING KONG (Victoria)

By • Dec 5th, 2005 •

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

QUOTE: The first hour is a bore but a necessary gift to Watts. Each remaining frame is awesome, though I could have done without Beauty’s version of a simian lap dance.

I was in the untainted Kingdom of Bhutan for the opening of KING KONG and got my first critique from New Delhi chocolatier Jyoti Agarwal’s 15 year old son Tejai. They had seen the movie together. Jyoti kept saying she didn’t understand why Kong didn’t eat his victim Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Tejai had a definitive reply to his mother’s frequent question.

“Because she was a white woman!”

While Jyoti kept dismissing her son’s response, I had to keep instigating the dinner repartee: “So KING KONG is really a racist movie!”

Jyoti had not seen the original 1933 classic KING KONG by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Why, Jyoti asked, was the girl kidnapped by the natives in the first place? I can answer Jyoti’s question now that I have seen the movie: The tribe had an alliance with Kong. They offered him frequent human sacrifices for (a) protection against other predators, or (b) as a form of idol worship. Like the essential part of Aztec culture, with a daily human sacrifice, “the sun would stay in constant and beneficent motion across the Aztec sky, bringing fertility to crops and men alike.”* (At the time of the Aztec harvest festival a female victim was flayed and her skin brought ceremonially to the temple. The skin was worn by the officiating priest.)

Thankfully screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson do not bother with Kong exposition. There is no APOCALYPSE NOW nutty photojournalist to explain the backstory to us. But we do spend the first hour plowing through The Great Depression and how hungry Ann is.

This sweet, young vaudevillian hoofer is starving. She stares at people eating. She steals an apple. She is one hour away from selling matches. While beautiful and marginally talented, Ann has no family or friends. Out of work, when a producer suggests she do something rather unsavory, she declines. She’d rather go hungry. This boring first hour is a necessary gift to Watts, who must just scream and look terrified when the story moves to Skull Island. Unfortunately, na├»ve Ann doesn’t exhibit a hint of the kind of edge and smarts needed to seduce Kong and survive in a jungle filled with predatory dinosaurs.

Maybe Ann makes it because she is a “white woman.”

Ann’s luck changes when she meets producer-director Carl Denham (Jack Black). We continue to slog around Denham’s story of fighting with his film backers, losing his star, and his maneuvers to get to a South Pacific island he inexplicably has found a secret map for. Denham offers Ann an acting job in a movie, money, and food. She hesitates but finally takes the fatal step on board the junk steamer! What has really enchanted Ann is the fact that famous playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written the script.

But, to Denham’s dismay, Driscoll has only written 15 pages, so Denham “kidnaps” him to sail away with the crew. The only place for Driscoll to write the script is in an empty cage next to the streamer’s cargo of wild animals. So that’s what Hollywood does with writers!

By the way, why is Jack Driscoll even in KING KONG? It’s not as if he was Kong’s rival.

Showing more animal magnetism than Kong is the ship’s Capt. Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). I could have done without overly enthusiastic crewman Jimmy (Jamie Bell), and there was just too much Denham for my taste in drama. The entire crew and Driscoll are underdeveloped. (Didn’t any of them see APOCALYPSE NOW? Never leave the boat!) But the lull is just Peter Jackson building tension and anticipation while trying to create chemistry between Ann and Driscoll.

Jackson creates a foggy, creepy landscape as the ship finally uncovers the mysterious Skull Island and its fabulous flipped-out natives. And then the film really takes off when its star, King Kong, turns up. He’s mean.

Kong accepts his sacrificial victim, but for some reason he takes a liking to his little doll. He playfully throws her around. It reminded me of that famous ape and her beloved kitten. But Ann wants to get free of Kong, even though she soon figures out that he has taken a liking to her. She has found her protector. They gaze at a sunset together. Ann sees the loneliness in the Ape Without A Mate. But instead of seeing herself as Queen of the Jungle, Ann wants to go home to homelessness.

Capt. Englehorn captures Kong and somehow everyone reaches New York City. What a trip home that must have been! Denham, finding a SoHo loft big enough to house Kong, plans a big opening night exhibit with Ann as Kong’s pay-girlfriend. You know what happens. It does not disappoint. In fact, the bar for big finishes has been re-set once again by Jackson.

Okay, the ice scene was limp. Ann didn’t once groom Kong. What did he ever see in her?

Maybe it was because she was a “white woman.”

Director Peter Jackson has made another classic thanks to his superior CGI team and his announced demand for excess. KING KONG dazzles with technical superiority. I could not believe the glorious dinosaur stampede. It looked damn real to me. I especially liked the fact that Kong never smiled or looked cute. I was worried. Weren’t you?

I was not put off by the long running time – it’s a spectacle after all! – until I sat and watched poor people waiting on a soup line and Ann’s painful stab at a career as a comedy star. (Watts is one film away from looking exactly like her best pal Nicole Kidman.) My advice would have been to cut that first hour out and start the film with the ship approaching Skull Island.

*From “Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice” by Garry Hogg.

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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