The nature of storytelling is to recount the same tales again and again. There exists only a finite number of classic conflicts, but different artists, audiences and ages find new meanings and ways of telling them. The original 1933 King Kong closely follows the 1925 silent dinosaur film The Lost World, only overlain with the even more archetypal "Beauty and the Beast" story.
The heart of Peter Jackson's lavish, slavish remake of King Kong lays not in a giant ape's improbable love for a screaming starlet, but the Oscar-winning filmmaker's almost blind adoration of the original. Jackson's King Kong contains moments that truly astonish, while still feeling faithful to a fault.
You've probably heard that the new King Kong tops three hours, but it doesn't have to. Try walking in 40 minutes after the announced start time. You probably know the story of driven movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) and impoverished actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) taking a tramp steamer to an uncharted island. It won't hurt to skip the drawn-out scenes in New York and aboard ship, with their labored jokiness and syrupy Depression-era sentiment. Jackson can wander comfortably through Middle Earth and Skull Island, but comedy can feel like alien territory to him.
Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (all veterans of The Lord of the Rings) follow the original film's dramatic outline and set pieces nearly to the letter, only inflating them with bigger special effects. In the original, the crew encounters a charging stegosaurus. Here, they outrun a thunderous dinosaur stampede. The first Kong rescued Ann from a ravenous T. Rex. Here, he fends off three, building to an outlandish scene with Ann and the giant creatures dangling from vines over a chasm. It's like a trapeze act from Le Cirque Dinosoleil.
Such sequences feel like Jackson's trying to top the Jurassic Park movies, but Kong himself, a 25-foot silverback gorilla, all but bounds off the movie screen. Providing Kong's movements through a motion-capture suit and computer imagery, actor Andy Serkis creates a character equally as memorable as his Gollum. A menacing force of nature, Kong also demonstrates loyalty and sensitivity while having integrity as an "animal" -- he's not just a misunderstood guy in an ape suit. Kong's bonding scenes with Ann often rely on nonverbal communication -- Watts engagingly replicates her character's vaudeville training -- and their relationship credibly transforms from terror to tenderness.
King Kong features some stupendous new scenes, like when the steamer is swept perilously through monolithic rocks, or Kong chases romantic rival Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) through busy New York streets. A sequence with the heroes beset by giant bugs has enough nightmarish intensity to send the squeamish screaming from the theater. The script brings a tone of suitably righteous indignation to the theme of callousness in the entertainment industry. Black, though a comic actor and rocker, steps up to convey the reckless obsession beneath Denham's hucksterism.
Jackson affectionately tweaks some of the clunky qualities of the original, like the Skull Island natives' embarrassing dance number and the inert dialogue, although Jamie Bell's brave but untested sailor boy proves as corny as any 1930s B-movie. Still, the film culminates marvelously with a re-enactment of Kong's last stand on the Empire State Building. The biplanes gleam in the light of dawn and there's a dizzying sense of altitude as New York spreads before Kong like a map. It's so spectacular and heartfelt that it's almost enough to dispel any misgivings.
But Jackson follows the original so predictably that his King Kong doesn't quite become his own. Much as I hate retreads that disrespect the originals, a new rendition should bring some fresh ideas to the table, beyond contemporary performance styles and flashier resources. You can look at the original Kong and still see a lot of soul, despite him being an obvious, stop-motion model. Time hasn't made the first Kong obsolete, and the new one, however robust, cannot depose him. Long live the king.
Great show! Relevant themes. Appeals to everyone. Looking forward to seeing upcoming episodes.
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