Back in 1994, James Berardinelli wrote a review arguing that CGI had relegated Willis O’Brien’s elaborate special-effects work in King Kong to the dustbin of history — that you couldn’t keep audiences on Skull Island once you had shown them Jurassic Park. He was so full of shit. (And seems to have come to his senses, judging from the substantially rewritten version now residing at his Web site.) Watching a TCM broadcast of King Kong tonight, I was struck by the visceral nature of the effects work. Does Kong look “realistic?” No. Neither, for all the careful artistry and craftsmanship that went into digitally painting the creases onto his green body, does Ang Lee’s ILM-conjured Hulk. But Kong exemplifies a sort of personal expressiveness and cinematic mysticism that’s all the more awesome for its apparent outmodedness.
Sophisticated viewers can actually see the fingerprints of the stop-motion animator moving across Kong’s body from frame to frame — making it all the more astonishing that this sort of fingers-on-fur action created a critter with the broad range of expressions (rage, curiosity, desire, even melancholy) displayed here. Sure, some of the rear-projection effects work is obviously phony, but even that’s OK. As the tethered Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) writhes and screams before the gigantic figure of Kong, she’s in precisely the same position as the movie audience — awed and humbled before a god of the silver screen.
From a purely technical standpoint, what remains impressive after all these years is exactly that there were no computerized crutches for O’Brien’s work. If it was to move up there on the screen, it had to be photographed, and the wide range of solutions to the problems presented is ingenious. The effects only fail completely when the film cuts to simple close-up shots of a leering Kong head, fully articulated and fully ridiculous. O’Brien’s stop-motion figure is much more expressive. I’ve also heard it argued that, when the ape himself isn’t on screen, King Kong is a mediocre film, another judgment I’d dispute. There’s nothing I know of in film history that quite matches the foreboding irony of Ann’s screen test, in which her director orders her into the shadow of an unseen monster to scream, scream for her life. And what of the amazingly sexy Wray herself, dressed and half-dressed for the jungle in filmy, clingy fabric?
It all slows down when Kong is brought to civilization, with his building-climbing, window-smashing antics scaled down to match a city that seems so much smaller than the jungle. But the climb up the Empire State Building remains iconic. Textbook example of a great film. Now Peter Jackson, himself a wonder of the filmmaking world, has a chance at a remake that won’t desecrate the memory of the original. Pray to whatever gods of the cinema you worship; pray for him. (Ray Harryhausen on Peter Jackson’s efforts: “If anyone’s going to do it, then he will.” W00t!)