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As everyone has probably heard by now, when Peter Jackson was 10 years old, he saw the classic 1933 version of King Kong and was inspired to become a filmmaker. He even tried to remake King Kong at age 10 with his parent's super 8 camera. Jackson has been obsessed by King Kong ever since. In fact, before he made the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, he tried to get the greenlight for a King Kong movie. But he couldn't get the backing he needed. Now in the post-LOTR world, Peter Jackson can do whatever he wants. He is the 800 pound gorilla, and so, instead of The Hobbit, he has made King Kong. The result is very impressive, particularly the special effects, but it suffers from the fact that no one can say 'no' to Jackson. King Kong is rather like James Cameron's Titanic. It has a huge budget, over $200 million, and is way too long. It clocks in at 3 hours and 7 minutes. That's a long time to show a story that is not very complicated: Ape meets girl, ape loses girl, ape gets girl back, and then falls off the Empire State Building.
As I just outlined, the story of King Kong is well known. A film producer, Carl Denham (Jack Black) has come into possession of a map showing the location of an unknown island. He plans to shoot his next movie there. Unfortunately, the studio has just cancelled the movie. Undeterred, Denham, plans to set sail for the mysterious island before he is caught. Unfortunately, he has no leading lady. Everyone has turned him down, including Fay Wray who is tied up shooting some film for Merian C. Cooper. This is a joke about the star and director of the original King Kong. Anyway, Denham finds Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), an out of work vaudeville performer, walking down the street. She agrees to go and gets onboard as the ship leaves the dock just ahead of the police. Trapped onboard is the screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who had dropped by to give Denham some pages from the screenplay. The ship's crew features the captain (Thomas Kretschmann), the cook (Andy Serkis) and the cabin boy (Jamie Bell). During the voyage, Ann and Jack get sweet on each other. Eventually, the ship arrives at Skull Island, they meet some natives, retreat back to the ship, the natives kidnap Ann and offer her as a sacrifice to Kong. Denham, Driscoll and the rest of the crew take off in hot pursuit. They encounter dinosaurs and all sorts of creepy crawlies and eventually Kong himself. The few survivors head back to ship except for Jack who rescues Ann and returns with her just ahead of the rampaging ape. As you must know, the ape is captured and brought back to New York City to set up the tragic climax. Kong escapes, reunites with Ann, and climbs the Empire State Building only to come tumbling down because, as Denham famously states, "Beauty killed the Beast."
This film is an homage to the 1933 King Kong. There was another remake, that came out in 1976, starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange. In this version, Kong climbs the World Trade Center. The new Peter Jackson version is set in the original time period of 1933, and follows the original movie closely. Some scenes and dialog are taken straight out of the 1933 film. There are some changes. Driscoll was the first mate in the 1933 version and now is a famous playwright. Brody is quite a bit less macho than Bruce Cabot but otherwise his role remains the same. The biggest change is in the scenes between Ann and Kong. In the original, which I just rented and re-watched, Fay Wray doesn't do much other than scream and faint, when in the presence of Kong. But Watts, who looks quite a bit like Wray, screams a bit when Kong first appears, but then becomes first stoic and then trusting of Kong. There is some real interspecies communication as Ann first uses her vaudeville act to entertain Kong and then enjoys a sunset with him. In the 1933 version, Kong loved Ann but it was unrequited. Now the love is returned. When Kong is captured and put on display in New York, Ann refuses to appear onstage with him. And when Kong escapes, she comes to him through the fog, much like Mr. Darcy appearing to Elizabeth Bennet in the new Pride & Prejudice. This is the hottest ape-human relationship since Planet of the Apes. The recent remake of Planet of the Apes also dialed up the interspecies sexual tension. Although I should mention that Kong partially disrobes both Wray and Lange in the previous incarnations of King Kong.
Some scenes are simply amazing in the new King Kong. Jackson and his crew recreated the New York City of 1933 digitally, including the use of the original blueprints to reconstruct the Empire State Building. As a result, New York City actually looks more realistic in the 2005 version than in the 1933 version. And King Kong, himself, every hair of him, looks really great. He is a hundred times more realistic than Aslan. In addition, there are the dinosaurs, giant spiders, etc. etc. They all look great too. By the way, there was a scene with giant spiders in the 1993 version, but it was removed as it was thought to be too disturbing. this scene has been recreated and expanded in the new version. My friend Sara, who saw King Kong with me, thinks the scene is still too disturbing. The cast of King Kong is very good, but aside from Watts who seems like an obvious choice for Ann Darrow, they aren't who I would have predicted. Jack Black, famous for his wise-guy parts in High Fidelity and The School of Rock, is actually a good choice for the wise-guy Carl Denham. He keeps his manic side in check and does a good job. Brody also does well as the hero and love interest for Ann Darrow. The real star of this film is Kong, and some of the credit has to go to Andy Serkis (also playing the ship's cook) who played Gollum in LOTR. He acted out all the Kong scenes with motion-capture sensors. And I have to say that there is a good chemistry between Ann and Kong. I really liked Watts' non-screaming, self-possessed Ann Darrow. It makes the ending even more poignant than it already is. You may recognize the Captain, Thomas Kretschmann, who appeared in The Pianist with Brody, and the cabin boy, Jamie Bell, who starred in Billy Elliot.
All this being said, I can't give a full thumbs up to King Kong. Peter Jackson is out of control, and there isn't anyone with enough clout to tell him that enough is enough. This film could easily have been cut to 2 1/2 hours and maybe even shorter. It doesn't drag but it is way too long. Jackson was just too enamored with his own special effects and apparently couldn't cut even one frame. In particular, the dinosaurs which appear as one major scene, where Kong fights a T-Rex, and a couple of minor scenes in the 1933 film, become several drawn out scenes in the new version. Kong fights three T-Rex's in a seemingly endless battle in which Ann is almost killed about 50 times. The infamous Giant Spider scene, now with all sorts of other gross things, is also pretty long. And then there is the brontosaurus stampede scene. This might be likened to the so-called "Burly Brawl" scene in the The Matrix Reloaded where Neo fights hundreds of Agent Smiths. That was a symptom of the Wachowski brothers' losing perspective. And the brontosaurus stampede scene is a sign of Peter Jackson losing perspective. This scene goes on and on and on, and it's pointless. It's cool up to a point, but it doesn't advance the story at all. Maybe they can release a shorter version on the DVD!
As I said, the special effects are quite wonderful in King Kong. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe looks like a cartoon by comparison. At the end of King Kong, when Ann and Kong are at the very top of the Empire State Building, I actually got vertigo. . Of course, I was in the front row, because there weren't any other seats left when I got there. But still, I was afraid of falling. This movie you just have to see in the theatre, even if it is too long. Remember to go to the bathroom before it starts!