The best thing about Peter Jackson’s King Kong may be that his attachment to the project likely kept anybody else from getting the job. For all its flaws, and there are many — that bloated running time chief among them — King Kong at its best ranks as an extraordinary work of heart and soul, with a computer-generated beast at its heart that shames every other digital monster to date.
The King Kong story has always been slippery in that it’s a monster movie that’s not really about a monster at all — or, rather, it flips the story on its head so the arrogance of western civilization becomes the primary monstrosity. You can read the original as simply the tale of a big dumb ape who falls for the white woman and ends up paying the ultimate price because he doesn’t realize his place in the world. Or you can see it as a parable of the monied American interests who brought the natives of Africa across an ocean to thrust them into somebody else’s idea of civilization, to exploit them and to destroy their spirit. But the ending of the film, when the great ape climbs to the top of the Empire State Building and then plunges to his death in a hail of gunfire from fighter planes, has always played as poignant. Storywise, what Jackson adds to the mythos is mainly gloppiness — a scene where Kong ice-skates (!) with Ann Darrow is the chief offender here — and dramatically distended phony tension.
But Kong himself is an out-and-out marvel. I’ve long been inclined to pooh-pooh any notion that late-model VFX films are inherently superior in any way to their long-in-the-tooth forebears, who solved problems at the toolbench, not the computer keyboard. But this guy is magnificent. He looks like a gorilla. He acts like a gorilla. Like any other CGI creature, he still doesn’t look fully three-dimensional in the frame, but he comes closest of any I’ve seen — so damned close that even a curmudgeon like me is finally willing to meet him halfway the way I met Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion critters back in the day. I was one of those crazies who supported the notion that Andy Serkis should be eligible for consideration in best-performance awards categories for his performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and in theory I’d support the same recognition for his work as Kong here — except that I can’t figure out where the instincts of the VFX animators leaves off and the physicality of Serkis’s motion-captured performance actually comes into play. If you figure Serkis should get credit for scenes like the one where Kong finally spots Adrien Brody’s character in the Times Square theater and fixes him with a glower the withering quality of which hasn’t been in evidence in American cinema since Lee Marvin died, then he’s getting robbed.
But really the credit has to go to Jackson, who figured out how to marshall the resources to get Serkis-as-Kong up there on screen, and how to embellish that performance with a real feel for animal behavior and something better than the best digital imagery known to mortal man. But at the same time I lay out the Best Director hosannas for what he’s actually achieved in this thing, I have dire reservations about his ballooning sense of proportion. Did all that time working on The Lord of the Rings, for which he might have been hailed as a genius merely for figuring out how to get it on screen in a way that was more Braveheart than Ladyhawke, inure him to the virtues of brevity and directness? Is he now surrounded, like George Lucas seems to be, by an army of craven yes-men who decline to question his worst ideas or to rein in his most unfortunately prodigious impulses? King Kong is flat-out done in by its crazy-long (188 minutes!) running time. There’s just not that much story here, and the extended running time emphasizes weaknesses in the narrative approach. I bow to no one in my long-standing admiration for the screenwriting team of Jackson-Walsh — I came across these two when Meet the Feebles was still their current release and I saw Dead Alive twice on its original theatrical run — but some of their business here feels like filler. So get rid of it. Given a movie that was obviously running long already, why did we have to endure that tedious subplot about the stowaway to Skull Island, with its hamhanded Conrad references? Why does the movie keep going on, and on, and on, with half-baked action vignettes (like that Naomi Watts broken-ladder business) even when Kong has ascended to the top of the Empire State Building and Jackson should be concentrating on a quick, ferocious climax? And really — ice skating?
What else is missing? The weird eroticism of the original, which at its most lunatic played like a scene from the sickest-ever episode of The Red Shoe Diaries. Fay Wray was freaking hot. Even Jessica Lange was a fox. And it isn’t like Naomi Watts isn’t up to sexy, but Jackson has her play Ann Darrow like she were Tess freaking Trueheart. Yes, I understand the rationale for making Darrow a more fully rounded character and less a pure bimbo. The film needs to play to mixed audiences in Peoria, and Ann Darrow as written in 1933 wouldn’t be one of those “good roles for women” that you always hear are missing from the movies this time of year. But the absence of that great, sexually freighted scene in the original where Kong peels off Darrow’s clothing — and then actually sniffs his finger — as she struggles and cries is one of many very deliberate decisions made in the transformation of Kong from rollicking horror movie of the id to a family entertainment about the gentle bond between sensitive humans and oversized animals. (Might be interesting to double-bill this with Grizzly Man.) For the new generation of 12-year-olds, watching Kong will be less like experiencing a strange and scary type of storytelling and more like watching a giant monkey kidnap your mom.
The Jackson vision of King Kong is a pie-eyed fantasy romance into which your every emotional response has been helpfully pre-encoded. It avoids risibility only because so much love, skill and inspiration are obvious in its making. But it’s also shameless in its advocacy of a reductive, sentimental reading of a fairly tough story. When you’re watching the 1933 Kong, in which the big ape actually peers through a high-rise window at Ann before he reaches into the room and drags her out, screaming, you realize that the great tragedy of Kong is about impulsive, unrequited love. By all the big ape’s lovesick swooning and great-protector posturing, Ann Darrow is not impressed. In fact, she spends the movie screaming bloody murder whenever he’s around. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when Kong takes a concrete nap in the film’s final sequence. Though Jackson has remade him as a romantic lead, the archetypical Kong remains a big, dumb animal who has fallen desperately, disastrously in love with someone who really does not give a shit — a tragic sensation with which many viewers should be intimately familiar. B
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson
based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie
Edited by Jamie Selkirk
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)
Screened 12/14/05 at National Amusements Cinema de Lux, White Plains, NY