King Kong (PG-13)
Starring: Naomi Watts
“Lots of Art, Not Much Heart”
Peter Jackson’s King Kong in a word? BIG! There’s nothing small about the movie…the scope, scale and vision are unparalleled, save for Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movie is a dazzling spectacle, a modern masterpiece and a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age all wrapped up in one hairy, king-sized package.
I suppose the prevailing question surrounding the high-profile, highly-anticipated film is, “Why another remake of the B tier creature-feature, first released some seventy-two years ago?” The quick answer is that Jackson fell in love with the original as a wee lad; it was his profound admiration for the clunky stop-motion classic that inspired him to become a motion picture director. The real answer is…who’s going to deny Jackson anything? After sweeping all eleven statuettes at the 2004 Academy Awards ceremony for the final LOTR installment, The Return of the King, Jackson could film a blue screen for three hours and we’d still watch it.
While surveying the well-established, highly-eclectic cast, the biggest surprise (and bone of contention among pre-premier fans) was the decision to tap slapstick comedy actor, Jack Black (School of Rock), for the title role. After viewing the film, however, most people probably will agree that Black does a superb job of fleshing out the young, brazen film director, Carl Denham. The ambitious auteur, as drawn by Jackson and Black, is frighteningly similar to a young Orson Welles; and you can be sure that such similarities aren’t lost upon either director or actor. Denham’s narcissism drives him to lie, cheat and cajole in order to get his picture made. The character possesses an eerie brand of fearlessness…even with dinosaurs charging toward him, Denham keeps the camera rolling, and it’s ultimately Denham who throws the bottle of chloroform that KO’s the angry gorilla. Denham is devastated when his camera is destroyed, but shows no remorse, whatsoever, for his fallen comrades. So severe is his megalomania and so entrenched is his need to be loved by the masses (Citizen Kane), that Denham revels in the opportunity to showcase the gigantic gorilla in an exhibition when they arrive back in NYC; taking credit for capturing the ferocious beast whenever he can, of course. Denham’s unbridled ambition and lust to provide his audience with a spectacle is a fascinating character study; in this memorable turn, Black is flawless.
Adrien Brody is adequate as renowned playwright, Jack Driscoll, but it’s Naomi Watts, in the pivotal role as struggling actress, Ann Darrow, who really steals the show. Though she never threatens to dethrone Fay Wray, Watts does an excellent job of emoting only when necessary. There’s a wonderful scene where Ann performs dance movements for Kong to entertain him (and keep him from eating her)—Kong soon grows bored and knocks her down to amuse himself. After repeatedly being shoved to the ground, a furious Ann strikes back at Kong, pricking his finger with a branch. Kong goes berserk and nearly destroys everything around him until a boulder falls on his head and dazes him. In that moment, the beast realizes the beauty isn’t afraid of him…an emotional bond forms between them. This touching moment, like the sad goodbye before Kong tragically plummets to his death, allows a ray of humanity to break through the cloud of CGI. Sadly, these intimate segues are few and far between in the film.
Andy Serkis (who makes a cameo as the ship’s cigar-chomping cook) is masterful as Kong. He brings the full gamut of motions, emotions and facial expressions to the colossal gorilla—in the same way he did for LOTR’s Gollum—by donning the blue sensor suit that’s become a second skin to the actor. Serkis will go down in motion picture history as the CG man…a truly unique and unsung talent.
The excellent performances bring the movie to life and the script (slightly tweaked from the original) is engaging, but it’s clearly the special effects that drive the film. Jackson earned the title “FX Wizard” while working on the LOTR movies, but in the words of Emeril Lagasse, he’s “kicked it up a notch” for King Kong, unleashing the creative masterminds from his Weta Workshop upon his dream project (many of the skilled artisans have worked with Jackson for the past decade now).
The iconic battle between Kong and the fighter planes atop the Empire State Building has received a facelift here, but seems like a no-brainer to storyboard. More impressive are the scenes involving the natives kidnapping Ann, the dinosaur stampede, Kong overturning the giant tree bridge and the scene where colossal slugs and bugs attack the explorers (easily the most disgusting tableau I’ve seen in a non-horror movie for quite some time—a full four minutes of creepy-crawly nastiness). One of the most deftly executed action sequences ever to grace the silver screen occurs near the movie’s midpoint…Ann desperately tries to escape the reckless pursuit of three Vastatosaurus Rex’ (think T-Rex with acne and bad dental work), faux dinosaurs dubbed by the clever minds at Weta. The sequence where Kong takes on all three Rex’ while tossing Ann from hand to foot, etc., is pure kinetic euphoria, and the scene where they all fall though the vines (Ann comes within inches of a Rex’ snapping jaws) is the creative high point of the film. There’s a great moment at the conclusion of the fight when Kong separates the Rex’ jaw from its head and beats his chest in defiance. Take that, you overgrown iguana!
For all of its technical achievement, however, King Kong misses the point by missing the human element of the story. Character development is inexcusably cursory in the film (which weighs in at 3 hours and 7 minutes) and everyone except for Denham and Darrow is overpowered by the movie’s unrelenting, mind-blowing effects. Though the story is a bit plodding before the Venture reaches Skull Island, the action achieves break-neck pace on the island, leaving little room for meaningful conversation unless you consider screams of terror to be finely-crafted dialogue.
Maybe we’ve come to expect too much from the story in the first place. The notion that a gigantic simian can fall in love with a woman (and a knock-out at that) will always remain a silly one, but King Kong, somehow, makes that improbability feasible and accessible with convincing performances and skilled direction. Jackson’s King Kong is finely-mounted, keenly-focused and larger than life in most respects. Whether or not it captures the heart and soul of the original is up to personal opinion. One thing is for certain, however, Jackson’s take on the classic story doesn’t monkey around.