King Kong (2005) – Fantasy Film Review

Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1933 classic is a loving homage that recreates and updates many of the familiar sequences, enhancing them with color widescreen photography and contemporary computer graphics. Unfortunately, the recreation leaves one wondering what, exactly, the point of the film is, other than indulging the director’s wish to remake a film he loved as a child. The new KING KONG feels like a hollow, empty gesture — a story ripped from the context of the time in which the original was created, lacquered over with bright new colors, and put on display like a museum piece. It’s dazzling to look at, but mostly it’s an empty exercise that fails, dramatically, to justify its three-hour running time.

The length bogs down the film so much that it is difficult to get excited when the good stuff finally arrives. Unlike LORD OF THE RINGS, Jackson’s KONG just doesn’t have an epic story that requires an epic length; the extra minutes are just unnecessary padding. Probably, there is a good 100-minute movie stuffed in here somewhere, and this is a case where the inevitable “Director’s Cut DVD” should be shorter rather than longer.

The running time seems to derive from a colossal misjudgment: it is as if Jackson has been thinking about this project for so long that he came up with too many ideas and refused to delete any of them in the script stage. There is no such thing as an ellipses here — no cinematic shorthand to advance the story, no room left for the audience to read between the lines and come to their own conclusions. The result is that Jackson and his co-writers do all the work for you. Whereas the original KONG is a dream-like fairy tale that invites interpretation, the new version has been over-analyzed to the point that the richness has been drained out of it, because everything’ has been spelled out. Stanley Kubrick once made comments to the effect that, when you explain everything, then it means nothing. That seems to be the case here.

The film is so overwhelmed with computer-generated imagery that it undermines the impact of many scenes, which convey no real sense of danger because they clearly consist of actors running around on beautiful but phony backdrops. The thought that kept running through one’s mind was: if ever given a chance to talk to Peter Jackson about this, the question to ask is: “Great animated movie — did you ever consider shooting it in live-action?”

Certainly, the film’s CGI-star (whose body movements were provided by Andy Serkis, who performed similar duties for Golum in LORD OF THE RIGNS) outshines the live-action cast. Jack Black’s Carl Denham has been reduced from a courageous adventurer who happens to make films into a bit of a self-important fraud who as often as not gets laughs (rather like Charles Grodin’s comic relief caricature in the 1976 DeLaurentiis version). Adrien Brody barely makes his presence felt, and one puzzles over the decision of making the character a playwright. Naomi Watts is good enough in the Fay Wray role, but making her more sympathetic to the giant ape robs the role of some of its iconic status: she’s no longer the damsel in distress or the girl in the hairy paw; she’s just a typical member of the audience who roots for the monster and against humanity. Only Thomas Kretschmann, as Captain Englehorn, captures a sense of adventure commensurate with the story we’re seeing — if the filmmakers had had any sense, they would have bumped him up into a leading man role and gotten rid of Brody’s character entirely.

In spite of all this criticism, there is a lot in the film that is truly wonderful. There are moments when you forget that Kong is just a CGI creation. Although the design of his body isn’t particularly impressive (he looks pot-bellied, compared to the classic original), his face is wonderfully detailed and expressive, effectively conveying both fearsome rage and touching pathos.

The ending in particular is awesome, with the shoot-out atop the Empire State building sweeping the audience up in a delirious state of vertigo beyond anything I ever felt while watching the old version — it really feels as if you’re poised precarious 1,000 feet up in the air and about to plummet downward at any second. (It’s also cool that ape-makeup-master Rick Baker — who played Kong in the Dino DeLaurentiis disaster of 1976 — is one of the pilots who fells the giant ape in this version.) Even here, Jackson can’t help overdoing things, with far too many shots of Kong and Ann exchanging meaningful glances before he topples to his death, but in this instance you can somewhat forgive the director for milking this moment for every ounce of juice he can get — it’s the payoff the film absolutely must have, if it is to work at all.

Sadly, the tragic tone — which provides whatever heart the film has — is undermined by fitfully comic SON OF KONG-like antics that intrude inappropriately. Despite early literary references to Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS (which tell us in no uncertain terms that this is not just a fun adventure movie but a confrontation with dark, ancient mysteries), the film goes for goofy comic relief and occasionally even outright silliness: Ann Darrow wins Kong’s heart by performing her second rate vaudeville routine (which includes juggling some pebbles), and later they slide around on the iced-over lake in New York’s Central Park, where for some miraculous reason Kong manages to avoid literally freezing his ass off.

It’s really too bad. What makes Kong interesting is that he is a fearsome monster felled by a single weakness: his love for Ann Darrow. Making him act cutesy undermines the potency of the myth. They should have saved this scene for the inevitable sequel, when Universal Pictures teams up with Sony to remake the tongue-in-cheek KING KONG VS GODZILLA.

TRIVIA

Although this is officially a remake of the original KING KONG, Jackson’s version also incorporates elements from the DeLaurentiis version (Ann Darrow overcomes her fear of Kong very quickly) and from slightly shoddy 1933 sequel, SON OF KONG. In the later case, the film opens with the Carl Denham character (here played by Jack Black) fleeing by boat for Skull Island before the law can catch up with him. This made more sense in SON OF KONG, wherein Robert Armstrong’s version of the character was being indicted for the death and destruction caused by King Kong in the previous film.

On two separate occasions in the film, Carl Denham (Jack Black) reacts to the death of a crewman by announcing with patently phony sincerity that he will dedicate the film to the victim and give any profits he makes to the victim’s widow. This comic bit seems lifted intact from the German black comedy MAN BITES DOG, which is a fictional film about a documentary crew filming a hit man: on two separate occasions, the documentary director tearfully dedicates his film to crew members who have been killed in the line of duty.

KING KONG (2005). Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay b Jackson, Philippa Boyens & Fran Walsh, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Andy Serkis, Evan Parke, Jamie Bell.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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