I have always had affection for the original 1933 classic monster film, King Kong. I am not sure why, but from such a young age I have been enthralled by "creature features". The thing that always stood out the most for me when it came to Kong was the over-the-top classic Hollywood ending that I am sure is one of the most memorable ever. I don't know why the death of a monster is so tragic in that film, unlike so many others, but it made for cinematic magic.
Then there was the 1976 version which starred Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges, and I have to say I cringe every time the film is mentioned. Over time, I have dubbed it "Man-in-suit" Kong.
I have even witnessed some of the spinoffs and sequels to Kong. The pseudo-classic Son of Kong (1933) and the brilliant Mighty Joe Young (1949) are probably the best kinds of continuations for the story. But then there is the very laughable and horrendous Kong Lives from 1986 which starred Linda Hamilton, who discovers that Kong survived his infamous plunge in 1976 New York. There is also 1998's kid-friendly and what-were-they-thinking Mighty Joe Young with Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton.
There has always been a fascination with giant animal films and Kong seems to be the pinnacle of that desire. So I guess I am not surprised that once more we have another Kong incarnation, but this time there is director Peter Jackson and a $200-million-plus budget.
Jackson's version is in part a homage to the original 1933 version, where we find desperate movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) trying to make his vision for his latest film come true. Denham is obsessed and finds struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to fill the void after his leading lady vanishes. To enhance his film further, Denham uses hot New York playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). The trio end up on a ship bound for an island Denham has dubbed Skull Island to shoot the movie.
After descending through a murky cloud cover, the ship arrives on the island where they discover hostile natives and a giant wall. After barely making their way back to the ship, Ann is abducted by the natives and offered to their island god – the god being a giant 25-foot gorilla named Kong who has a mean disposition and survival instinct. Ann is taken by Kong.
As the shipmates struggle to mount a rescue mission, Ann begins to understand the mighty ape. And unbeknownst to Ann and her new island protector, they have a fateful date with the Big Apple.
Jackson has done a lot of things to update and enhance this story. First of all, he has toned down the male lead in the film from the brooding ship's first mate to Brody's "hero-in-training" screenwriter. This angle allows for the development between Kong and Ann to intensify.
Secondly, he has added oodles of back story and added at least half a dozen new characters.
Probably the biggest change is that Jackson didn't turn his giant ape into a monster, but into the animal he is. What is strange is that is what they tried to do in 1998's Godzilla and it met with disastrous results. Here, it is an overwhelming success. Kong is not ever perceived as anything more than an animal and when Ann's affections for the big lug intensify, Jackson carves the film into a "heroic-tragedy".
I think for me what was the most amazing thing about the film was Naomi Watts. She is utterly mind-blowing and my god, her eyes. This woman's performance has such raw emotion, laced with intense fear, sadness, and hope. She is beautiful, strong, loving, and at times poetic. No wonder she could tame the wild beast.
What is even more amazing is the fact that she has all this raw emotion and she is acting to green screen and a yellow ping-pong ball for eye level. How does she do that?
Watts deserves an Oscar nomination just for the ability to deliver all that emotion with nothing there. I have never seen it done so flawlessly. When is Hollywood going to honor actors who have to act against green screen? She is brilliant.
I also have to hand it to Peter Jackson – his version of Kong is probably the best CGI-created character ever to date. His first collaboration with Andy Serkis as Gollum was amazing, but Kong takes that one step further.
I liked the casting of Jack Black as Denham, who seemed to be perfect for the insane movie director, and he was able to emulate the Carl Denham from the 1933 film perfectly. I also got used to Brody as the male lead, but thank goodness he wasn't playing the rugged sailor-type like in the original film.
One of the slight problems I had with the film was obviously its length. The original suffered from an overly long jungle sequence, but Jackson's version's extended beginning and end feel extremely trying at times. The whole solo-character scenes leading up to the ship and exiting it made me quite bored.
I also felt that Jackson's Kong also had two very distinct themes. One was the whole eyes thing. Each of the four main characters (including CGI Kong) acts solely through their eyes and delivers lots and lots of different kinds of emotion. Jackson's film is full of long, tight-focused shots on his characters' eyes. I really loved that and felt that Watts really benefited from that angle. The second theme is there are a lot of extra "insane falls". Men, dinosaurs, Kong, and the main actors all take death-defying falls at some point. Jackson does so much foreshadowing, I got distracted and bugged at how unlikely surviving some of the jungle falls was.
As a whole, I have to say I enjoyed Kong a lot, but in the end I have to say that for me it was more about the beauty than the beast. (4 out of 5) So Says the Soothsayer.