Peter Jackson’s King Kong dazzles more than anything

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After the great success of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King , the acclaimed director Peter Jackson had to decide to go bigger or smaller for his next picture. But when he got the chance, Jackson jumped at the chance to remake King Kong. Kong was a passion project that he first worked on before entering Middle Earth. Except now – armed with a $200M+ budget – he could do more or less what he wanted without nervous executives looking over his shoulder.

Peter Jackson’s original pitch for Kong was more in the style of 1999 flick The Mummy with Brendan Fraser. That approach was enough for the upcoming director of Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. By 2003, however, Jackson was an acclaimed, award-winning filmmaker. A simple, crowd-pleasing blockbuster would not be enough.

So, Jackson decided on an action-adventure/drama with state-of-the-art special effects, a sprawling cast, stunning visuals, and a Kong-sized runtime more akin to Titanic than The Mummy. Jackson’s Kong was big, bold, poetic, and heavily relied on many of the same visual flourishes and storytelling techniques that shaped LOTR into a groundbreaking blockbuster.

Unfortunately, The Eighth Wonder of the World failed to beat the competition at the box office, namely runaway hit The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Kong entered theaters on December 14th, taking in $218M domestically and $556M worldwide — not bad, but far from the billion-plus total that The Return collected the King.

Jackson overestimated Kong’s universal appeal – audiences are clearly the big guy, as Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla vs. Kong prove. Just not enough to sell billions of dollars worth of tickets at the box office.

Preliminary response

I could not wait for King Kong. Outside of Revenge of the Sith, it was my most anticipated movie of 2005. I grew up with King Kong and Godzilla and wanted to see them brought to life with proper special effects. . I saw The Return of the King 12 times in theaters. Yes, 12. I was fascinated by Peter Jackson’s filming and I couldn’t wait for his encore. I watched interviews and production diaries; I bought the soundtrack and that two-disc DVD release of the original King Kong, where Jackson painstakingly recreated the spider sequence. My brother and I ran down to GameStop to buy the PS2 adaptation of the movie. Check out these amazing views:

Damn, that was a long time ago. I’m fading. Did the remake live up to this hype?

Sadly, no.

I liked King Kong – well, most of it. The special effects were impressive, and the action was larger than life. I was satisfied, but not blown away. Multiple viewings did nothing to change my perspective. King Kong was good, and that was about it. Yes, I bought the DVD, then the Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray. The film has always been in my collection, but I’ve ignored it over the years – apart from clips I see on TV.

But almost 20 years later, I decided to shoot King Kong one Saturday night and was pleasantly surprised.

On the Second Watch

Desperately needing something to entertain my 8-year-old daughter a few weeks ago, I clicked on King Kong and promised her an adventure with lots of monsters. While she was finally getting out after the first 60 minutes, Kong’s look caught my attention and didn’t let go.

Worked first time for me on this tour. I appreciated Jackson’s efforts to present attractive, well-rounded characters such as Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a struggling actress looking for a break, Carl Denham (Jack Black in a criminal performance), an outstanding director lucky to risk everything for his craft, and Jack Driscoll (fake Adrien Brody), a writer-hero who falls for Anna.

The strange relationship between Hayes Evan Parke and Jimmy Jamie Bell is less interesting. Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens go to great lengths to flesh out the two sailors but they don’t provide payoff for their overly dramatic exchanges. Hayes dies, and Jimmy disappears in the third act.

Ditto with Kyle Chandler’s Bruce Baxter, an arrogant actor who seems to grab tails and run when the shit hits the fan. Amazingly, he redeems himself with a rescue the second time but then inexplicably reverts to his smug ways in the third act, where he goes back to acting like a goon.

Jack’s journey hits just as many bumpy bits. Based on the requirements of the scene, the man moves back and forth from cocksure writer to indomitable hero. Anna unfairly casts him aside despite her willingness to travel through Hell to save her life. Their climactic capture feels a little forced.

Other negatives include the infamous Brontosaurus stampede, which looks just as bad today as it did in 2005. Peter Jackson was under a lot of pressure to finish the film by Christmas, in part tired, leaving several effects defeated or unfinished. Some of this series looks very good, but the integration of the actors (who are clearly running on treadmills in front of a green screen) is not completely convincing.

Finally, as mentioned above, the third act introduces most of the characters we spend so much time getting to know. The original King Kong uses a similar time jump, and it works because we only care about Anna (Fay Wray), Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No time is wasted on the supporting cast, used primarily as monster fodder. In Jackson’s Kong, I wanted to see what happened to Jimmy, Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), and Preston (Colin Hanks). How did their visit to the island affect their personal lives? Why wouldn’t they appear on Carl’s show? Why spend so much time making us care about minor characters?

King Kong is far from perfect, but it excels where it matters most: Ann and Kong’s relationship. Watts (who deserves more credit for her excellent work here) goes for broke and wonderfully captures Anna’s turmoil – she is an inexplicable woman in love (sort of) with large onions. The fact that we feel bad and care for Anna speaks volumes for Watts’ performance.

Then there’s Kong himself, a magnificent creation that ranks up there with Gollum and Caesar as one of the greatest outright CGI characters ever created. Coincidentally, all three characters are played by the great Andy Serkis. Kong looks amazing, right down to his expressive eyes and ragged, war-worn fur.

And in amazing shots, such as when Ann and Kong take a break from the action to go ice skating at Christmas:

You never doubt the couple’s feelings for each other, as subtle as that is. When Jackson focuses on this relationship, King Kong steps up. Too often, it unnecessarily moves into horror mode with moments, like the spider pit, that affect the narrative:

Jackson also recreates the classic log sequence from the original Kong. Except here, the beat leaves us scratching our heads. Is Kong supposed to be a monster or a gentle giant? The V-rex fight happens right after Kong murders Anna’s friends – are we supposed to cheer for the great ape or fear it?

No matter. By the time we get to the climactic third act, Peter Jackson is firing on all cylinders, proving why he’s one of the best in the business. Here, the director combines exciting action with tender character beats and covers everything with a tragic foreshadowing. When Kong climbs the Empire State building, it is portrayed as an inevitable consequence of his attraction to a beautiful woman. His fate was sealed long ago.

Then comes the film’s best set piece: Kong vs. a squadron of heavily armed planes, a sequence that ranks among the most spectacular action scenes in modern cinema. Here, Weta’s VFX really shines; everything comes from the subtle glow of the sunrise to the spectacular aerial views of New York. I live for this kind of cinema, and I’m surprised it didn’t affect me as strongly on previous viewings.

Make no mistake: King Kong is flawed, lumpy, bloated and disjointed. Jackson is stuck between two films – an action-packed monster picture and a complex drama. However, King Kong shines more often than not. It may not be the home run Peter Jackson and Universal envisioned, and it doesn’t reach the same heights as LOTR. However, King Kong stands tall as an extremely ambitious piece of filmmaking.

A tip of the hat and apologies to Mr. Jackson. You made Kong proud.

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