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King Kong
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
King Kong
Principal Cast
Naomi Watts -- Ann Darrow
Jack Black -- Carl Denham
Adrien Brody -- Jack Driscoll
Thomas Kretschmann -- Captain Englehorn
Colin Hanks -- Preston
Jamie Bell -- Jimmy
Evan Parke -- Hayes
Kyle Chandler -- Bruce Baxter
Andy Serkis -- Kong/Lumpy the Cook
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alec Worley

Following up the successful hat-trick of The Lord of the Rings was always going to be tricky, but then Peter Jackson is a filmmaker who seems to thrive upon risk. Who would have thought the director of Meet the Feebles could adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's opus as well as he did in an age when Hollywood's idea of epic fantasy was Dragonheart. Several Oscars later the director returns to the project he was trying to get off the ground before Rings, a remake of what is, without question, one of the greatest movies of our genre, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper's 1933 masterpiece King Kong.

The odds Jackson faces this time are just as frightening. His remake is the third in a line of casualties that began with the roundly despised Dino De Laurentiis-produced, John Guillermin-directed update of 1976, starring Jessica Lange, and Art Scott and James A. Simon's animated musical The Mighty Kong of 1998, featuring the voice of Dudley Moore. And let's not even get into the rip-offs and sequels like Inoshiro Honda's Kingukongu tai Gojira (King Kong vs Godzilla, 1963) or Guillermin's dire sequel King Kong Lives (1986). So, has Jackson repeated the trick of reinventing a cornerstone genre text for a new generation without betraying the spirit of the original? Short answer? No.

The magic of the original Kong resides in its resemblance to fairy tale, a grandiose symbolism that Jackson here tries to describe in terms of comic-strip realism. While The Lord of the Rings movies benefit from their tangibly realistic tone, the primal poetry of Kong evaporates on contact with mundane realism, disintegrating like faerie gold.

The bones of the original plot remain unchanged, albeit fleshed out with an extra hour and a half of details. It's Depression-era New York and ruthless filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) has just found out that swine Merian Cooper has poached his leading lady for some picture or other at RKO. And this just minutes after Denham has stolen his own unfinished movie from the moguls who threatened to cut off funding. Luckily, starving vaudeville entertainer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), petite enough to fit into the required size four costumes, finds herself with little choice but to board the SS Venture en route to Denham's next location.

Off on a trip for no one knows how long, to some spot Denham doesn't even hint at, the only woman on a ship with the toughest mugs you ever looked at (among them Jamie Bell's thieving cabin boy and Andy Serkis as Popeye), Ann falls in love. Bruce Cabot played her "heroic" beau in the original, a role here split into three: Thomas Kretschmann's grizzled German skipper, Kyle Chandler's preening movie idol and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll, the soulful playwright Denham swindled into scripting his movie. Having narrowly avoided a shipwreck on the jagged shores of Denham's secret location, an uncharted rock known only as Skull Island, the crew are set upon by the cast of Cannibal Ferox, who sacrifice Ann to something lurking on the other side of an ancient protective wall. Something big.

With Ann snatched into the wilderness by several mobile tons of animal fury, Jack plunges into the prehistoric jungle after her, the gallant crew at his back. Denham, meanwhile, despite a rising body-count among his employees, still believes there's a way he can save his picture and his reputation.

Peter Jackson's King Kong is a movie of three one-hour acts, of which the first feels by far the longest. (It's anybody's guess why a dangling subplot concerning Jimmy the cabin boy couldn't have waited for the inevitable special edition DVD.) And it's during this prolonged sea voyage that you begin to wonder just how respectful the movie's feelings are towards the original. Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot's shipboard meeting ("I guess you don't think much of women on ships do you?" "Nah, they're a nuisance.") here become lines from Denham's laughable B-movie as Watts and Chandler rehearse on deck. Later, the native jig from the original gets recycled as part of a tacky Broadway revue. But the real problem with this movie doesn't kick off in earnest until we're on Skull Island.

Remember that scene at the end of Return of the King, a moment which we all thought was a bit too silly, when Legolas brings down a war elephant and surfs down its trunk like Fred Flintstone? Well, that's the tone for the whole of act two of King Kong, a schoolboy jokiness that often threatened to spoil The Lord of the Rings ("Nobody tosses a dwarf.") and which Jackson allows to get the better of him here. He treats us to some thrilling Harryhausen-style set-pieces, but then quickly lets them get out of hand. A titanic tooth-and-claw smackdown between a 25-foot gorilla and not one but THREE dinosaurs (you can almost hear Jackson squealing with boyish delight in the background), swiftly collapses from the coolest thing you've ever seen to the dumbest.

Jackson simply doesn't know when to stop, and demonstrates none of the restraint that made The Lord of the Rings work. By the time Denham (part-Peter Jackson, part-Captain Ahab) has dedicated his movie to the memory of yet another dead employee, it's all become a farce. You may have to keep reminding yourself that this is a movie by Peter Jackson and not Stephen Sommers, as Velociraptors get punched in the face, hungry T-Rexes swing from vines like monstrous trapeze artists, and giant roaches get machine-gunned off of writhing victims. ("Just hold still!") By now the movie's lost it, all pretension towards realism is gone and the spectacle is just there to be endured.

Dinosaurs, by the way, have definitely lost their wow-factor, although the other monsters on show are a hoot, including swarms of demonic bats and giant bugs, and oodles of slobbering maggots (I really liked these). Performances by Jack Black, Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody are in here somewhere, but who cares? Kong's the jungle VIP here and don't you forget it.

Jackson's reinvention of Hollywood's tallest darkest leading man is the movie's trump card. Scarred, matted, with jutting tusks and flashing amber eyes, this Kong could have clambered from the pages of a yarn by Robert E. Howard, even his habitat looks as if it were drawn into being by Frank Frazetta. Surrounded by the bones of his forefathers, he's the last of the barbarian kings, Conan facing his final adventure, a prehistoric animal edging towards the final rung of the evolutionary ladder, and you better believe he's not going down without one helluva fight.

It's a different movie when Kong's around; it almost works. Jackson forgoes the old school long shots and frames his monstrous hero largely in close-up, giving him a terrifying animal recklessness as he barrels about the screen. His special effects performance (a combination of CGI and motion-captured actor Andy "Gollum" Serkis) is staggering. He also has some great scenes with Naomi Watts' resourceful damsel, although their exchanges are more Gorillas in the Mist than Romeo and Juliet, even when they go skating together in Central Park. No, really.

The final hour set in the concrete jungles of New York probably owe more to the reviled 1976 version than the original, while the final iconic scene atop the Empire State Building rather summarises the effect of Jackson's movie. Watch the original Kong again (you could watch it twice within the running time of this movie). See those biplanes firing relentlessly into the camera as Kong reels helplessly atop his perch, weakly swatting at his tormentors; it's not combat, it's an execution, slow, inevitable, devastating. In Jackson's hands it becomes just another rip-roaring action set-piece. It's the difference between poetry and popcorn. Not that Peter Jackson's King Kong is a disaster by any means, just hollow, glib and desperately uneven. A disposable spectacular.

Copyright © 2005 Alec Worley

Freelance writer Alec Worley lives in London, England, and writes regularly for cinema magazines in the UK. His first book, Empires of the Imagination, is published by McFarland.

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