King Kong (United States/New Zealand, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spoiler Alert: This review assumes that the reader is familiar with the story of King Kong, including the ending. If you're not, and don't want to be spoiled, it's best to stop reading after the fourth paragraph and return once you have seen the movie.

By choosing to re-make King Kong, an American iconic masterpiece, Peter Jackson set a task for himself higher than the Empire State Building. Making this movie wasn't just following up The Lord of the Rings, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. And, as with all such personal projects, this one ran the danger of not working because the director was too close to the material. (Steven Spielberg's Hook and Atom Egoyan's Ararat fall into that category.) Fortunately, Jackson's passion for the material did not dim his creative senses. By combining the best elements of the 1933 and 1976 versions of the film with his own contributions, Jackson has made what many will consider to be the definitive King Kong. There's no need to try this story again; it's doubtful it can be improved upon.

Jackson's 2005 King Kong follows the basic storyline of the 1933 original, albeit with a number of changes and wrinkles. There are a few direct homages, including a reference to Fay Wray being unavailable for Carl Denham's film because she was "making something for Cooper," a snatch of the hammiest verbatim dialogue from the old screenplay, and a few bars of Max Steiner's theme. Although Jackson claims to detest the 1976 version, he borrows freely from it. (Perhaps subconsciously?) Some things that happen in this King Kong mirror events from the De Laurentiis one too closely to have occurred by coincidence. (In particular, the development of a two-way relationship between the girl and Kong, rather than the one-way one from 1933.)

If there's a flaw in King Kong, it's that Jackson spends a little too long setting things up. It's understandable that he wants to spend some time with the characters so we get to know them before the action starts, but the 70-minute build-up seems excessive. There is an impact to early momentum, and some audience restlessness can be expected. While it's true that the two earlier movies also devoted the first third of their running times to setup, that amounted to 35 minutes for the 1933 picture and 45 minutes for the 1976 editions.

Once the action starts, however, it's difficult to find something more energetic, more daring, and more touching than King Kong. This is roughly two hours of the best movie-making available today. It's worth every penny (and more) that was spent bringing it to the screen. As eye candy goes, only Revenge of the Sith equals it from 2005, and King Kong is overall a richer and more satisfying cinematic experience (and this is from someone who lauded Sith and may put it in my End of the Year Top 10). If you think of the 1933 King Kong as a foundation of a house, the 2005 version is the whole thing. Jackson has used Cooper's vision as his blueprint, and has expanded upon it greatly without changing the essential floorplan. The synopsis sounds much the same, but the experience is wholly different.

The old Arabian proverb says this: "And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead." This is, and has been, the story of King Kong, the 25-foot tall giant of an ape who rules his island, but finds man to be the superior predator. Led by his fascination for a blond woman to act in ways contrary to his nature, he is ensnared and brought to a foreign land, where he proves inadequate to counter the forces brought to bear against him. It's easy enough to see King Kong as a parable about man's rapacious approach to nature. That aspect of the story is as evident in Jackson's telling as in the environmentally conscious 1976 version.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling actress who finds herself out of work with no means to pay for a meal. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) is being pursued by his creditors and needs to find a leading lady so he can set sail before the authorities catch him. Fortuitously, it would seem, the two meet, and Ann is soon aboard the Venture, heading for lands unknown. The captain, Engelhorn (Thomas Kretschmann), is a surly chap who doesn't trust Denham. Also aboard the ship is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), the screenwriter for Denham's latest epic. And there's a hunky actor, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), who is intended to play Ann's on-screen love interest. Off-screen, she becomes involved with Jack. The two are involved by the time the ship reaches its destination, Skull Island. There, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and sacrificed to their god, Kong. Instead of killing her, however, the big ape is intrigued by his blond-haired captive, and the two bond - Ann does a vaudeville comedy routine for her captor while he protects her from T-Rexes. Meanwhile, Jack, Carl, and a group of others from the ship come ashore to look for Ann. They don't find her - at least not initially - but they encounter a menagerie out of Jurassic Park and insects that might eat horses for a snack. Eventually, Ann is rescued, Kong is captured, and the action moves to New York City. Breaking free of his manacles on the first night he is being displayed to the public, Kong locates Ann and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building, where his tragic final stand occurs.

Despite three prominent human actors, the star of the movie, as one might expect from the title, is the giant primate. Kong has gone from being an 18-inch high clay puppet to a man in a monkey suit to a beautifully rendered CGI creature. His range of motion and ability to react believably have improved with each incarnation. This Kong uses an amazing range of facial expressions and, when you look into his eyes, you can't believe he isn't real. Andy Serkis, who helped Jackson by "playing" Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, lends his motion capture skills to Kong, and the results are so stunning that one is tempted to believe that Jackson went to a South Pacific Island and found a 25-foot high ape. Kong shows nearly every emotion across the spectrum: puzzlement, rage, amusement, bemusement, possessiveness, tenderness, and affection. And Kong does some things that couldn't have been accomplished using any other special effects technique. Try orchestrating the T-Rex battle another way.

The best of the trio of human performers is Naomi Watts. She also has the most difficult job - not only is the role physical, but it requires her to play off something that isn't there. (This is fast becoming the norm, rather than the exception, in big-budget motion pictures). Like Kong, Ann must traverse a vast emotional range, from horror and fear, to acceptance, to caring. Adrien Brody does the best he can with a thankless role. Jack's part is to fall in love with Ann, then run around the island chasing her. In New York, he gets to participate in a car chase, but after that, his biggest contribution is to ride an elevator in the Empire State Building. Jack Black, an unusual choice for Carl Denham, plays the movie maker like a cross between Cecil B. DeMille and P.T. Barnum. Black's portrayal is primarily straight, and he is effective, although there are occasions when the actor's personality peeks through.

The cornerstone of the film isn't the CGI action/adventure material; it's the relationship between Kong and Ann. Here's where the movie's heart lies, and for King Kong to be more than a visual extravaganza, Jackson has to hit us beneath the left rib cage. In 1933, Ann was terrified of Kong. He treated her like a plaything, and she hated and feared him. When Kong died, we felt a little sadness, but nothing overwhelming. In 1976, Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s most important innovation was to have the female lead (called Dwan, played by Jessica Lange) reciprocate the Beast's feelings. Kong was fascinated by Dwan. After an initial bout of fear and anger, she accepted him as a gentle protector. Atop the World Trade Center, she risked her life to save his, and her world came apart when he fell. The male lead (Jeff Bridges) was also shown as being sympathetic to Kong.

For the 2005 version, Jackson has followed the 1976 movie's lead, and developed a tender, two-way relationship between Ann and Kong. This is meticulously advanced over the course of the movie - particularly in three scenes. The first has Ann doing a song-and-dance routine that amuses Kong and convinces him not to kill her. The second has Ann moving behind Kong during a battle, acknowledging him as her "champion." And the third involves a frozen pond in Central Park, and may represent King Kong's most magical moment, and Jackson's lasting contribution to the legend. Unlike in the 1976 movie, Jack is not kindly disposed toward Kong. This may be why, in the end, the bond between Ann and Kong seems stronger than the one between Ann and Jack. And the reunion of the two human lovers after Kong's plunge rings hollow. We don't really care about Ann and Jack. The character we do care about has just died. His final moments with Ann are quietly heartbreaking.

One of the most difficult things about King Kong may be picking a favorite scene, especially since the final two hours are packed with candidates. Action-adventure lovers have the dino-rampage, featuring raptors chasing down a pack of brontosaurs; the triple T-Rex smackdown (a tour de force that lasts about 10 minutes); an insect attack that will make bug-phobes squirm (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is tame by comparison); Kong's attempts to reclaim his stolen bride; and the final Empire State Building battle. For me, the quiet moments are in many ways more rewarding: Kong and Ann bonding while watching a sunset, and the playfulness of Central Park. The latter is more rewarding with tragedy looming so close.

The musical score is nondescript, but perhaps that's not James Newton Howard's fault. He was selected by Jackson late in the process to replace Howard Shore, and only had a couple of months to write and record everything. The best thing that can be said about the music is that it's never intrusive. Visually, as one would expect, King Kong is a marvel. The decision to do no location shooting allows the Skull Island scenes to be eerie and claustrophobic. And Jackson's re-creation of Depression-era New York, while not rigorously accurate historically, fits nicely into a nostalgia mold.

I can't say that King Kong is the best film of 2005, although it's close. It is the year's best and biggest blockbuster, and proves that, after the re-make disappointments of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young, it is possible for an old-time monster to make a triumphant re-appearance. Jackson's King Kong casts a huge shadow over the history of this "movie monster" - not big enough to eclipse the 1933 or 1976 tellings of the same story, but impressive enough to remind us that, with a wizard at the helm, there are times when re-makes can be glorious things.

King Kong (United States/New Zealand, 2005)

Run Time: 3:07
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1