Director: Peter Jackson
Remakes are a common concept among Hollywood filmmakers. Why think up a new story when you can just take a well-known one and put a new spin on it? The thing is, only a select few lay claim to being equal to or better than its source material. Sure, there are remakes out there that are actually good, but many simply find themselves being halfhearted attempts to cash in on an established property. I'll admit that not every remake can be as entertaining as David Cronenberg's The Fly or John Carpenter's The Thing, but a lot of them are just plain disappointing. But in an era of mediocre remakes, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson crafted a great one as the follow-up to his epical trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels. With his Lord of the Rings crew and a new cast of characters in tow, Jackson returned to his home country of New Zealand to craft a film born of the fond memories of his childhood, the remake of one of the most famous monster movies ever produced: King Kong. The second retelling of a story about a beauty and the beast whose heart she stole, Jackson has created a remake worthy of at least a portion of the respect Merian Cooper's original film is given. So let's get to the review, shall we?
We begin in New York City circa 1933. The city is in the grip of the Great Depression, and among the impoverished masses is Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). A struggling vaudevillian actress who has grown accustomed to performing shows in front of more empty seats than people, Ann is heartbroken to discover that she's been forced out of her job after the lack of income forces her theater to permanently close its doors.
Desperate to find work, she stops local casting director Charles Weston (David Pittu) on the street and hits him up for a role in an upcoming production written by her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Weston says the role has already been cast, but sympathizing with her misfortune, he gives her the address of another job, suggesting that she only work there long enough to get whatever money she needs.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Carl Denham (Jack Black), an entrepreneurial filmmaker whose penchant for "safari films" isn't exactly winning over his investors. They'd rather him make more profitable romantic movies, or at least include naked jungle girls. When Denham discovers his investors are planning to sell off his latest work as stock footage instead of funding his next movie, he and his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) steal the footage and jump into the first taxi they can.
Once on their way, Denham tells Preston to assemble their crew so they can leave within the hour for their location shoot. But being the bearer of bad news that he is, Preston informs Denham that their leading lady has quit because Preston couldn't bring himself to lie to her about their filming location. And to really narrow things down, any replacement they get will have to be a size four because the wardrobe department has finished all the costumes. Denham rattles off a number of actresses, but all of them are unavailable. He hops out of the taxi and begins a search for a new lead actress, leaving Preston to make sure everything else is in order.
Ann and Denham's paths fortuitously cross paths at a burlesque house, where they both arrive at the same time. Yeah, Weston sent her to a strip club to find work. Real class act, that guy. Denham notices her, and realizing she's the woman he's looking for, he follows her as she disappointedly walks away. The starving Ann soon arrives at a fruit stand and gets herself into trouble when the stand's proprietor catches her stealing an apple, but Denham promptly steps in, holding up a coin to pay for it. He takes her to a café to talk to her, but promptly kills any trust she may have had in him by asking if she's a size four. This, of course, is precisely the thing you shouldn't as a lady as soon as you meet her. Ann thinks he's looking for a good time and she just isn't that kind of girl. Denham reassures her that he means no harm, only wanting to offer her a role in his movie. As he explains the intended role to her, she shows enough interest to convince Denham that she'd be a perfectly sympathetic star. Unfortunately for him, Ann graciously turns him down, explaining that she's a comedian at heart. Starring in a dramatic picture is out of the question. But when Denham fleetingly mentions that Jack Driscoll is putting the finishing touches on the script, she just can't say no.
They arrive at the docks soon thereafter, where Denham introduces Ann to Preston and their ship's captain, Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). Preston pulls Denham aside and tells him that his investors have sent the police after him for stealing his footage from them, prompting Denham to send Ann on board while urging Captain Englehorn to set sail immediately despite the lack of proper paperwork. Denham rushes aboard to search for a place to hide, bumping into Jack in his cabin to review the script. And much to Denham's chagrin, Denham has only completed the first fifteen pages of the script. But Jack is in a hurry, as he has an appointment with his true love: the theater. As Jack starts to leave, Denham surprises him by offering two thousand dollars as payment. After getting stalled with a few poorly written checks, Jack heads for the door, choosing to wait until Denham returns to accept his pay. But thanks to Denham's stalling, Jack misses his opportunity to get off the boat before it sets sail, leaving the dock mere moments before the police arrive. He even considers jumping overboard, but hesitates, leaving Denham to quip, "If you truly loved the theater, you would have jumped."
As the ship's voyage gets underway, the ship's first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) leads Jack to the cargo hold, since all of the actual cabins are spoken for. There are cages everywhere, and when ne'er-do-well cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell) accidentally reveals Captain Englehorn's stash of chloroform, Jack learns that their captain is an expert in capturing exotic animals. He pays it no mind, however, and picks out a rather large cage that he'll call home while he finishes the script. It is during one of Jack's brainstorming sessions with Denham that their fearless leader finally divulges that the ship's true destination is not Singapore, but a mythical uncharted territory named Skull Island. The little snoop that he is, Jimmy hears the whole conversation and relays the news to Hayes. So he's a thief (as evidenced by a scene in which he got caught stealing Jack's fancy fountain pen), a snoop, AND a snitch. I'm surprised the other sailors haven't thrown him overboard yet. Hayes confronts Denham about it, recounting a tale of a drifter who had been found out to sea. He told an ominous story of a island with a massive wall, but before he could divulge any more information, he killed himself.
As the ship's voyage progresses, as does the filming of Denham's movie. As production moves forward, Jack finds himself less than impressed with the performance of egotistical star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), who often adlibs instead of sticking to the script like asked. However, Jack is vocal in his satisfaction with Ann's performance, and before long, the pair are head over heels for one another. The guy even writes a play for her to star in. Alas, their romantic bliss is cut short when Captain Englehorn alters course after discovering that there's a warrant out for Denham's arrest. Unfortunately, the ship gets caught in an impenetrable fog bank and eventually crashes into a gigantic rock wall off the coast of where else Skull Island. The ship is stranded, and as the ship's crew tries to remedy this unenviable situation, Denham takes his film crew onto shore.
As they arrive, they quickly learn that "Skull Island" is an appropriate name, because not only is the shore full of rocks that resemble skulls, but a number of very real human skulls line the path that the landing party follows. Denham's party soon lands in a village bordered by an enormous wall, the one alluded to earlier. The village is seemingly deserted, populated only buy skeletons that appear as if they were part of ritual sacrifices. Denham discovers that the town is very much inhabited, but the natives that call Skull Island home aren't exactly thrilled about having visitors. An unlucky member of the landing party finds himself the recipient of a spear through the back as the natives attack, killing more members of the crew while showing a very disturbing interest in Ann. Captain Englehorn and his sailors finally show up with guns and chase the villagers off, and both the sailors and film crew return to the boat and get ready to leave. But upon nightfall, a native slips on board and kidnaps Ann, who is dragged back to the island and prepared as the newest sacrifice to the creatures that live on the other side of the wall. Tied up and alone, the frightened Ann is even more terrified to discover just what she has been sacrificed to: a 25-foot-tall gorilla named Kong (Andy Serkis, via motion capture technology).
However, the native that kidnapped Ann made the mistake of leaving a necklace behind for Jack to find. He informs the sailors, who immediately drop what they're doing and start a rescue mission. Ann's rescuers arrive at the wall just as the giant ape snatches up his quarry and disappears back into the jungle of which he is king. Jack and a number of armed crewmen venture behind the wall after Ann and Kong, while Denham, Baxter, and some of the film crew tag along with the intention of continuing his movie's production. Once past the wall, Captain Englehorn gives them twenty-four hours to return before he and the ship leaves for home with or without them. Unfortunately for them, the island's jungle isn't exactly the happiest place on Earth. Thanks to Denham's inherent desire to finish his movie no matter what, he and Baxter accidentally anger a herd of brontosauruses into stampeding. And just their luck, a number of hungry velociraptors get in on the fun too. Once they get to safety (after a few members of the group have been trampled or eaten), they stop to regroup, with Baxter's cowardly ways coming to the surface as he suggests they turn around and assume Ann didn't survive. Driscoll calls him on being a chicken, and takes the rest of the crew to continue the search.
Meanwhile, Ann has survived, and has been brought to Kong's home high atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. Ann pulls out some of her vaudeville act in an attempt to keep him from killing her, which actually does work in amusing him. Kong humorously gets in on the act by knocking her down over and over, but when she yells at him and tells him to stop, Kong throws a temper tantrum and leaves. And smartly, she takes the opportunity to escape. While she runs for her freedom, the rescue party runs into Kong while trying to cross a fallen tree that bridges a crevasse. Not too happy after the argument with Ann, Kong dumps the tree and everyone on it into the ravine. The fall kills most of the crewmen, and the survivors find themselves at the mercy of giant man-eating bugs and maggots. With only Jack, Denham, and Jimmy left, Baxter and Captain Englehorn come to their rescue. Jack continues his determined search for Ann while the rest of the crew return to the ship, with Denham (whose camera and film were destroyed in the fall down the ravine) deciding that if he can't have his movie, he's going to capture Kong.
While all this is going on, Ann runs afoul of a trio of angry Tyrannosaurus Rexes, but Kong returns in the nick of time. He manages to fight off and kill all three T-Rexes, then puts Ann on his shoulder and walks back to his cliff, where they watch a lovely sunset and she falls asleep in his gigantic paw. It is up on the cliff where Jack finds them, and he and Ann make a break for it while Kong defends himself from a mob of overgrown bats. Kong catches up to them as they run through the jungle, where the remaining crewmen are waiting to spring a trap for Kong. The trap only serves to slow Kong down, and at the last minute, Denham knocks him out by smashing a bottle of chloroform across Kong's forehead. Standing above the unconscious primate, he announces his plans to make Kong a Broadway attraction as "the eighth wonder of the world."
Months later in New York City, Ann has become an anonymous chorus line dancer after refusing large sums of money to assist with Denham's exploitation of Kong, while the lovelorn Jack watches a production of the play he wrote for her. Unable to watch the play without Ann in the lead role, Jack leaves and rushes to another theater, where Denham has succeeded in putting the shackled Kong on display in front of a large audience. The show also features an elaborate stage show featuring actors playing the natives and Bruce Baxter taking all of Jack's glory as "the man who hunted down the mighty Kong." The grand finale of the show features a fake Ann presented before Kong, which, when combined with the annoying popping of the media's camera flashbulbs, only serves to piss Kong off. He breaks free from his restraints and begins demolishing the theater, but when he recognizes Jack as the man that stole away his beloved, Kong follows Jack into Times Square and runs amok in his frantic search to reclaim Ann. Jack decides to lead him to her, commandeering a taxicab and tearing through the streets of Manhattan with Kong hot on his heels. He finally catches up with Jack, but before he can squash his human foe into a greasy spot on the pavement, Kong sees Ann and calms down. He scoops her up and takes her to Central Park, where they have a brief moment of happiness sliding around on a frozen pond. Their fun is short-lived, however, as the military breaks it up with gunfire. With Ann in hand, Kong bounces around across the skyscrapers of Manhattan, escaping to the Empire State Building at sunrise. But once again, their happiness is cut short by six Navy biplanes firing at Kong. The story comes to a head in a recreation of one of Hollywood's most legendary scenes, as Kong makes one last stand atop the Empire State Building against the planes that seek to bring him down.
Clocking in at around three hours and seven minutes, the movie is twice the length of the original film. This is the biggest problem with the movie; it just runs far too long. Even the end credits run long, going nearly ten minutes. Most directors remove or shorten scenes from their movies to tighten the pacing or keep it at a respectable running time, but it seems as if director Peter Jackson kept nearly everything he shot. There's a deleted scene or two out there (one of which turned up in King Kong's marketing campaign), but for the most part, I don't really think very much was lost in the editing room. Maybe Jackson forgot that most people would get a little restless if stuck in a theater for three hours. Maybe he didn't want a very big "deleted scenes" feature on the DVD release. I don't know. A movie this long isn't so bad on home video, because you can hit the pause button and take a potty break, get a snack, or whatever, then come back and pick up where you left off. But in a theater, you're going to be looking at your watch after about two and a half hours, wondering if and when this thing going to end. While I don't have a problem with long movies per se, King Kong has a few moments that are exciting and entertaining at first, but become tedious after a while because they just keep going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny.
However, despite the movie being far too long for its own good, Jackson's direction is very good. For a guy that got his start directing gory low-budget horror movies, Jackson certainly knows how to make an epic. In association with the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie, King Kong is a visual tour de force. Jackson utilizes creative camera angles, such as the point-of-view shots from the biplanes, to put the audience right there in the action. However, Jackson overuses slow-motion setups until they become annoying. You might be able to get away with it a few times, but there's a certain point where a line gets crossed. And when Jackson decided to draw out Denham spelling the word "skull," he gleefully hopped right over that line. The movie's "realism" also came under fire in various reviews around the time of its initial release, but there is a certain suspension of disbelief that should quell some of their complaints. However, I do wonder about one thing. How would Kong be able to jostle poor tiny Ann around as he does without hurting her? As much as she gets thrown around, I'm surprised she didn't end up with a broken neck (or a major case of whiplash, at the very least). But then again, the movie is about a 30-foot gorilla that fights dinosaurs in the South Pacific before fighting planes atop a skyscraper, so I guess I shouldn't let a crazy little thing like the laws of physics get in the way of having a good time.
The script, penned by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, isn't all that bad. It's a far improvement over the original script from 1933. The characters are much more well-rounded, and it succeeds at telling a better story. Though it uses the 1933 classic as its blueprint, King Kong also draws inspiration from the 1976 remake by developing a delicate, two-way relationship between Kong and the film's female lead. Fay Wray's Ann Darrow was merely a frightened object of Kong's lust, while Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow views Kong as her protector. It seemed to me that if Kong were human, Ann would pick him over Jack any day. The Ann/Kong relationship is developed through numerous scenes, each marvelous in their own way. From Ann performing a humorous dance routine for Kong and watching a sunset atop a cliff, to their playfully tender moment in Central Park and the sweet sunrise atop the Empire State Building, I found the onscreen chemistry between Naomi Watts and her computer-animated simian friend more likeable and enjoyable than many human couples in romantic movies. It is not only a testament to Naomi Watts's ability as an actress, as she had to share the screen with someone she couldn't see, but it is a testament to Andy Serkis's ability to convey emotions with simple movements. He doesn't so much play Kong as he does provide the body language for the effects team, but Serkis gives Kong a humanity not seen in the original movie, and it set up the necessary connection that needed to be made between the screen and the viewer. Because if Kong was just another monkey, it wouldn't have been as engaging. James Newton Howard's score, meanwhile, is non-intrusive, yet doesn't have the same grand feel that the rest of the movie has. It's definitely serviceable, but it isn't as supportive as it could have been. But I can't totally fault him, because he was a last-minute replacement for Howard Shore and only had two months to put all the music together.
With the exception of the Kong/Ann relationship, perhaps the movie's strongest point is the cast. Of the three lead characters, Naomi Watts is the best of them. Not only is the role very physical and requiring Watts to interact with a cast member who isn't there, but she must also travel a diverse emotional range. From fear to acceptance to caring, Watts hits the nail right on the head with her absolutely wonderful performance. Adrien Brody does what he can, but the role isn't really a lot. He doesn't get to contribute much, outside of falling in love with Ann, running around the island, getting into a car chase, and riding in an Empire State Building elevator. He's not exactly bad, but Brody isn't given all that much to work with. And in the most unusual instance of casting against type I've seen in a while, Jack Black is quite effective as Carl Denham. I've seen the role described as a cross between Cecil B. DeMille and P.T. Barnum, and I think it's a very fitting description. Black primarily plays the role straight, but there are traces of his comedic personality that shine through on occasion.
While King Kong isn't exactly the greatest movie of 2005, it's definitely very good. Although it runs far too long and runs the risk of being boring, it proves that in spite of the disappointing remake of Godzilla, movies about old-school gigantic monsters can be good. I doubt Jackson's retelling of the story will overtake the 1933 version in the minds and hearts of moviegoers, but it definitely shows that there are times when remakes can honor the legacy of its unsurpassable source material. It's an entertaining movie if you can forgive the three-hour running time, so fans of movie monsters will find a fun movie to watch. And for that, I'll give it four stars.
Final Rating: ****