Few movies really cry out to be remade. If they were done well enough the first time, then why bother? If they weren’t, they usually don’t provide the inspiration for a do over. After all, few turn out as well as His Girl Friday. Peter Jackson has always wanted to remake King Kong, one of the most popular and iconic, bigger-than-life cinematic fantasies. One might ask why. The most obvious answer is that as extraordinary as the original Kong’s special effects were at the time, they are now indisputably dated by current technology. That’s not to say they can’t still be appreciated, only that they lack the verisimilitude to which 21st century audiences are accustomed. Given Jackson’s playful B-movie sensibility in Dead Alive, sensitivity for human drama in Heavenly Creatures, and adeptness for spectacle in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one might think he could pull off a worthwhile King Kong remake. Add to that a ridiculous budget of close to $200 million, and Jackson should be able to awe his viewers like never before.
This turns out not to be such a good thing. Jackson brings a “bigger is better” mentality to the movie, and every scene in the new King Kong strains to be the biggest, most pulverizing, in-your-face spectacle that you’ve ever experienced – from a high speed pileup on a dinosaur highway to Kong kung fu on Tyranosaurs. Three hours of that feels like being stuck on a roller coaster for the same amount of time. The perfect audience corollary in the movie is a scene in which Kong grabs heroine, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive), and shakes her like a martini. Furthering this sense of assault is a stylistic tendency Jackson has been indulging in more and more of late: the close-up for easy dramatic effect. In King Kong, Jackson never meets a close-up he doesn’t like.
The plotting remains close to the original. Safari filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, School of Rock) convinces broke and out-of-work actress Ann Darrow to join his crew, including principled writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) and distrustful ship’s captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann, Downfall), to make a movie at mysterious Skull Island. There the natives capture Ann and offer her up to 25-foot tall gorilla, Kong. Denham, Driscoll, and crew try to bring her back while being assaulted by dinosaurs, giant insects, and Kong himself. Jackson is smart to keep the setting in the Depression-era 1930s. Not only would a giant ape be meat pudding against today’s military weapons, but it saves Kong from the inevitable dismissive irony by contemporary characters.
Jack Black may seem too goofy a persona to make Denham work, but he turns out to be better than expected by giving the character both a conman and comic-relief angle. His most memorable line, “I’m someone you can trust Ann. I’m a movie producer,” combines the two. Brody is also cast against type as an action hero, but fails to generate much heat as a man of action, integrity, or romance. As the standout of the cast, the luminous Watts is a better actress than Faye Wray and she’s not doing a ditsy variation of Marilyn Monroe as Jessica Lange did in the 1976 remake.
The Dino Delaurentis-produced version actually does have it over this new Kong (and the old one too for that matter) in at least one very important respect, it manages a stronger focus in developing the relationship between beauty and the beast. Jackson’s Kong has Ann performing vaudeville like Charlie Chaplin to placate the ape, who, as acted out by Andy Serkis in CGI disguise, has no distinct personality. There is never a sense of why Kong is drawn to Ann or even who Kong is (anyone who complains that animals don’t have personalities has never owned a dog).
It doesn’t help that the tone is all over the place. Some amusing comic slapstick trapping Driscoll on the departing boat, a horrifying scene of a man devoured by fanged worms, and a syrupy moment of Kong cupping a sleeping Ann in his arms just don’t cohere in the same movie. Then there is an amorphous subplot between the first mate, Hayes (Evan Parke) and a one-time-stowaway-turned-crew-member, Jimmy (Jamie Bell) that is affecting due to Parke’s strong presence, but diverts from the main story for no good reason, and is abruptly abandoned.
At about 80 minutes longer than the original, Jackson’s Kong has much that should have been relegated to the “deleted scenes” section of the DVD – an old geezer’s farewell to the theater, Hayes performing a literary analysis of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and a maudlin sequence of Kong “ice skating” with Ann in Central Park (don’t ask). But there are also some pretty fantastic moments like when the crew arrives at fog-enshrouded Skull Island and encounters jagged rocks as if the craggy hand of Neptune were trying to grope the ship.
King Kong peaks at the right time – when the big ape escapes in New York. While Jackson omits the famous train wreck scene (maybe because it would have cost Kong too much empathy?), he makes up for it with Kong tearing up Times Square and mounting the Empire State Building at day break with all of 1930s Manhattan dizzyingly below. Still, by this point, it’s not too little, too late, but too much for too long.