A suitable title for the latest telling of the 800-pound gorilla from Skull Island would be Peter Jackson’s King Kong and the Titanic Alien Temple of Doom. It’s an overly long title for an overly long movie that takes most of the fun out of what is supposed to be a thrilling piece of pulp fiction.
Production 601: Take 3
The good news is that Jackson’s take is a gargantuan step ahead of the 1976 epic of disastrous proportions that played off the 1970s oil crisis, nearly killed Jessica Lange’s career before it even got started, and put Kong atop the World Trade Center.
The bad news is that, 72 years on, the original still has more heart and soul — and a more pure, fun-filled sense of adventure. Back in their day, directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack were real-life adventurers and their films set the stage for the likes of Harryhausen, Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron, and, of course, Jackson.
For Jackson, an unabashed Kong fanatic, the tale offers a fertile field to be mined with the latest Weta widgets. The tinkering embellishes the story, nearly doubling the original’s running time to a stocky 3 hours.
Unfortunately, most of the tinkering is counter-productive. Toward the end of the new film it is said of Carl Denham, the adventure filmmaker who captured Kong, that he destroys that which he loves the most. In some respects, the same can be said of Jackson.
In this case, Jackson’s most unforgivable sin is a complete disregard for the fundamentals of storytelling and pacing.
From Ann to Zoo
Jackson slowly sets the stage, indulging himself in recreating 1930s New York City. The picture begins with a montage, starting in Central Park Zoo, then moving through Hooverville, the shantytown housing those hardest hit by the Depression. Inter-cut are scenes of a stage show and one of the show’s stars, the beautiful, wide-eyed Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr.), as she learns of the theater’s closure and her joining the ranks of the unemployed. Jackson must think it’s important that we get the picture — loud and clear — that poor Ann is unlucky in love and life. This stage-setting segment goes on for a little too long before it finally settles on Carl Denham, watching his audience of studio execs screening his latest, incomplete, work.
Carl, now played by Jack Black (School of Rock), is no longer a fearless true-life adventure filmmaker. Now he’s a shameless self-promoter with a poor reputation, more of a shyster than a real adventure man; instead of an Austin Stevens, he’s more like a Geraldo Rivera.
When the studio heads find Carl’s latest work suitable only for stock footage, he runs off with the reels, talks Ann into helping him finish his epic, and effectively kidnaps the playwright/screenwriter Jack Driscoll as they sail off for Skull Island. Of course, it doesn’t happen quite that fast. The over-indulgent Jackson has three hours to fill.
By the way, this time Jack Driscoll is split into two characters; the dashing first mate played by Bruce Cabot in the original is replaced by the far-from-dashing Adrien Brody (The Piano) and now he’s a somber, inward literary type. The dashing half is transferred over to a new character, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler, Mulholland Falls). He’s a handsome action movie star, but shallow and spineless.
As for Kong, what was a stop-motion figure in 1933 and a man in a monkey suit in 1976 is now a collection of 1s and 0s in cyberspace, a computer-generated 25-foot gorilla that goes back to the primal roots. Kong no longer stands erect; he’s simply one extremely large gorilla and that change toward the “realistic” doesn’t particularly serve the story well.
Cut to the chase. There are some truly magnificent moments in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. At times it’s even ferociously entertaining.
The sequence in which Ann is captured from the well-traveled ship the Venture is effective and creepy, gaining strength from this take’s more in-depth look at the Aboriginal tribe’s mystic ways. Perhaps the best sequence in the whole movie is the one in which Ann is offered up to Kong. It’s a stunner, melding tribal music, fire, lavish set design, and gorgeous imagery.
(Take note when Kong makes his Broadway debut later in the movie: The stage show conjured up by Carl Denham is a recreation of the costumes, dancing, and music from the original 1933 sacrifice sequence.)
And, yes, the finale is spot on in terms of eye-popping appeal. Kong gets back on top of the Empire State Building and does a better job of fighting off the bi-planes this time around, though the end result is still the same. When Jackson sticks to the source material (indeed, a couple scenes are recreated frame-for-frame, word-for-word) and simply improves on it with today’s resources, the movie works strikingly well.
The best new idea in the movie involves Kong’s relationship with Ann and how the beauty tamed the beast using her vaudevillian talents. That’s fun stuff and it’s a shame Jackson surrenders more often to his infatuation with his Weta team instead of his infatuation with the wonderful story and characters at hand.
More Is Less
Some producer should have reined in Jackson a bit; what he does here is akin to remaking Gunga Din as Lawrence of Arabia. Jackson goes off on tangents including totally superfluous subplots and too many too-lengthy dinosaur chase sequences on Skull Island. Quite frankly, the effects in these extended/new sequences are surprisingly shoddy and similar work in the Jurassic Park series was far more effective and realistic. The original Kong broke ground, no doubt about it. Here, the feeling coming from the screen is a movie trying desperately to break ground... or at least break something.
There was a simple elegance when, in both the 1933 and 1976 editions, Kong is ambushed then shipped off to New York. Jackson steps away from that concept and resorts to another lengthy, effects-laden confrontation that simply isn’t all that believable.
Excise those dino scenes, clip some of the opening place setting, remove the silly Kong ice-skating in Central Park sequence, and the film stands a better chance of being a thrilling piece of work.
After spending more than $200 million on Kong and $300 million on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with a combined running time between the four movies of more than 12 hours, Jackson needs to take a step back and revisit the simple elegance of less. Heaven help us all if Jackson takes on the daunting challenge of remaking Bambi Meets Godzilla.
Jackson’s now a big-time fantasy director whose meteoric rise is more astonishing than anything in his Kong remake. What he needs now, straight away, is his equivalent to Schindler’s List. Something to reel him in, ground him, and reintroduce him to people.