From the Archive: King Kong

So…modern remakes of giant monster movie classics seem to be on my mind for some reason. This review was written for my former digital space This is when I was still deeply enamored with the idea of building hyperlinks into the reviews, an inclination that, I’ll admit, I haven’t fully shaken. Or maybe haven’t shaken at all. As it turns out, I and my partner in all things saw this movie on a trip to New York City, where we walked within view of the Empire State Building on the way to our next stop. It added some resonance to the experience. As it turns out, we’ll be returning to the metropolis in question, flying out of our humble mountain town one week from tomorrow. Enjoying the symmetry of it, we currently have a screening of Godzilla on our loose agenda for our time there.

After spending years taking audiences there and back again through Middle Earth with the three films that comprise The Lord of the Rings, one might expect–even hope for–director Peter Jackson to take on something a little smaller for his follow-up. But when you’ve got a dream project pokin’-at-ya, pokin’-at-ya and a big studio prepared to give you a blank check to make it happen, well, the iron is hot, I suppose.

Which brings us the new version of King Kong, with a scale so epic that it’s a full hour-and-a-half longer than the 1933 original. Jackson has repeatedly asserted that a boyhood viewing of the classic film about a giant ape smitten with a lovely blonde woman and unwillingly transported to New York City where he becomes acquainted with biplanes on the top of the Empire State Building is what inspired him to become a movie-maker in the first place. If nothing else, this new film has some stretches that perfectly capture and convey that sense of wonderment unique to great, grand movies. Jackson demonstrates the sort of full-throttle assurance and storytelling audaciousness that Steven Spielberg routinely brought to the strongest efforts of his crowd-pleasing heyday. Another important similarity between Jackson and Spielberg is the dedication to grounding the film in character, something Spielberg instinctively understood from the very beginning when he was making time for a drunken sing-along and other actor-friendly bits in the middle of his own “monster” movie.

So, while Jackson has shepherded his Weta workshop personnel to another defining achievement in the field of special effects and virtual performances with Kong, he lavished equal attention on his performers not reliant on binary code. Jack Black is strong enough as obsessed filmmaker Carl Denham that there may be hope that he’ll be liberated from playing the same basic character over and over again, even if it is admittedly enjoyable at times. It’s no surprise that the real winner among the cast is Naomi Watts, who is downright mesmerizing as forlorn actress Ann Darrow. Not only does she have to believably connect with a gigantic animal (which is really just a special effect inserted post-production, regardless of the inspired on-set work of Kong “actor” Andy Serkis), but she does so with barely any dialogue is the second half of the film. Watts is incredibly expressive with her eyes, face and physicality. This may actually be her strongest film performance to date (and no, I’m not forgetting about her starring role in Lynchian Stew 2001.)

The film has its share of problems, though. That extended running time is felt in the opening third of the movie, with some draggy moments before the ship carrying our cast reaches Kong’s home island. And Jackson’s newfound inclination to veer into sentimentality that led him to slap a half dozen endings onto Return of the King shows up in odd places here, usually disrupting the film’s momentum. There’s even a rare misfire in the realm of technical achievement with a scene in which the search party tracking the Kong-kidnapped Ann flees a brontosaurus stampede. Jackson lets this sequence go on far too long, straining both narrative plausibility and inviting scrutiny of the effects that the finished work can’t quite withstand.

Thankfully the film pretty effectively dissuades you from dwelling too much on these slips. It’s far more pleasurable to recall the extended set piece involving Kong battling a trio of T-Rexes, or Watts’s vaudeville performance to tame the great ape, or Jackson crafting the first appearance of the biplanes that will assault Kong into a moment of lovely visual poetry tinged with foreboding and filmic inevitability.

A final note: if you’re not a big fan of creepy-crawlies, you might want to plan your bathroom break and concession refill run around the “spider pit” sequence. When you see Adrien Brody and company coming to at the bottom of a dark chasm, that’s the time to find the empty popcorn tub and start edging towards the door. I think it’s great, but those likely to be troubled by oversized vampiric crickets and big maggoty, sharp-fanged, man-eating globules might find it a tad less fun.

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