Historically, sequels and remakes of the original Kong range from bad to unwatchable, and while Jackson certainly knows effects and storytelling, Kong remakes seem to be cursed endeavors. Voodoo or no, they're probably ill-advised. 1933's Kong is one of those movie archetypes that really shouldn't be messed with. Like Citizen Kane or Metropolis (another film that has suffered from attempts at updating it), King Kong simply isn't meant to be trifled with. Alas, some will try.
With this update, Jackson has the best of intentions and the utmost reverence for the source material. The movie is chock full of homages to the original, from the opening title design to snippets of dialogue used to a scene with giant bugs that was partially shot and cut from the 1933 version. In fact, Jackson's devotion to the original is fawning to the point of obsequiousness, with one noteworthy exception: His version of the film is nearly twice as long.
That's right: King Kong, the 2005 edition, is three big hours of monkey business. The guts of the original plot are quite similar: A young and starving actress named Ann (Naomi Watts) is recruited off the streets of Depression-era New York City to shoot a film on the aptly named Skull Island, which turns out to be populated with all manner of monstrous creatures who never heard about that mass extinction business a few million years ago. Chief among them is a 25-foot-tall ape known as Kong, and he's immediately enraptured by the blond Ann, who is offered to him as a sacrifice by the humans living there. Instead of eating her, he adopts her as a sort of pet and plaything, and Ann slowly finds that she has some kind of affection for Kong, too.
Events conspire to bring Kong back to New York, where he's put on stage as a kind of respectable freakshow for the upper crust to see. In short order, he escapes, finds Ann, climbs the Empire State Building... and the rest is history.
Well, almost. Jackson's film is chock full of so much added backstory, side plots, and extra characters that you'd think he was working from a 500-page novel instead of a 104-minute movie as source material. Jackson spends a good 45 minutes bumming around his awesome CGI New York before we leave. (The original begins on the docks and the ship to Skull Island is underway inside of 15 minutes.) This helps build Ann as a tragic heroine (she's considering burlesque!) and turns director Carl Denham (Jack Black) into a serious huckster and, ultimately, an outlaw. Also beefed up is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), the movie's screenwriter (no longer a freelance adventurer), who is immediately drawn to Ann and who squabbles with Denham continually.
Eventually we arrive at Skull Island, only to be greeted by spear-wielding natives (their faces jabbed full of leftover prop piercings from Jackson's LOTR orc army) who promptly kidnap Ann as a sacrifice to the great ape. Finally, Kong is revealed, Denham senses an opportunity for an amazing film, and a rescue mission is mounted.
Once we're in the jungles of Skull Island, Jackson's film turns more mysterious and far more adventurous than the original, in keeping with the recent tradition of "upping the ante" when it comes to action. There are at least five major action sequences on the island, as the ship's crew fights off dinosaurs, Kong fights dinosaurs, and on and on, until finally the crew (what's left of them) face down Kong and capture him. The film is at its most fun during these moments, but Jackson's over-reliance on fuzzy, slow-motion camerawork and a few fleeting moments of bad green screen weaken the realism of the situations.
Even worse, Jackson's three leads are remarkably robust, able to survive drops into bottomless ravines, endless waves of attacking creatures, and a dinosaur stampede without getting so much as a scratch. The rest of the ship's crew is, of course, expendable, but one can only suspend disbelief for so long before the impossibility of the three leads' continued survival becomes eye-rolling.
But the action sequences that prop up the middle of the film are definitely the centerpiece of the movie. Peter Jackson knows how to stage epic battles -- and you're thrown into the thick of it time and time again. There's definitely too much of it (did we really need that fight with giant roaches and swamp worms?), but at least the film is truly engaging during this hour.
At its core, of course, Kong is not an action-adventure but a love story, with Kong and Ann developing a sort of relationship that is somewhere between the love you feel for a spouse and that you feel for a pet gerbil. In Jackson's film, it first errs toward cute, with Ann juggling and doing flips to entertain a gibbering Kong. Later it turns sappy -- almost to the point of Darth Vader's infamous "Noooooo!" from Revenge of the Sith -- when she teaches Kong how to say "beautiful" in sign language. King Koko, anyone?
While the movie is overwrought and self-indulgent to a fault, Jackson's best move is the hiring of three competent and engaging leads. Brody is a good, understated hero. Black is effective as comic relief and as a semi-villain, and contrary to expectations he doesn't play it too broadly. Watts, of course, Fay Wrays her way through the film admirably, and even though the emotion her character is meant to portray is saccharine, Watts seems to really buy it with her soul-searching eyes and thousand-watt scream.
The new Kong will pay off most handsomely for true fans of the original, who'll be able to pick out a reference to or spoof of the 1933 film at a clip of about one bit every 15 minutes. Some of these moments are direct recreations (Kong snaps a dinosaur's jaw, then plays with it), some of them are a little more underhanded (Driscoll mocks improvised dialogue that Ann and her co-star are delivering... which turns out to be actual dialogue from the original Kong). Even the scores are similar. As a film buff, I appreciated these in-jokes more than anything else, and I suspect most critics will be glowing over the film because they feel like they're part of the club.
It's difficult to put aside Kong's obscene length, unwarranted subplots (a stowaway played by Jamie Bell is taken under wing, the lengthy backstory of Denham's trouble with his financial backers), and those god-awful Koko moments. But there is fun stuff here, and lots of it (too much of it, really). Kong has his share of charms, but frankly, for effects-driven epics, I had a better time this year at War of the Worlds, Star Wars, and even the new Harry Potter movie.
You're going straight to the top, big guy!
Box Office Worldwide: $550M
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, WingNut Films, Big Primate Pictures, MFPV Film
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, Jack Black as Carl Denham, Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll, Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn, Colin Hanks as Preston, Andy Serkis as Kong/Lumpy, Evan Parke as Hayes, Jamie Bell as Jimmy, Lobo Chan as Choy, John Sumner as Herb, Craig Hall as Mike, Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter, William Johnson as Manny, David Pittu as Weston
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