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Published: 2005-12-14 - 22:09:00
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King Kong Review

By Joe Lozito

Return of the "Kong"

Like Peter Jackson, I grew up watching the original 1933 "King Kong" over and over again. Half the fun of that movie is imagining how the filmmakers achieved the then-groundbreaking effects with little more than their own ingenuity to support them. Sure, Kong changed scale multiple times during the film. Sure, the opening thirty minutes plod by on hammy acting and dialogue. And yes, the characters are defined as much by their costumes as anything else. Yet somehow it worked. And even to this day when you see the original "King Kong" you know you're watching a pivotal moment in film history.

Still, the effects were pretty rough.

So it's no wonder a modern director with a big budget and an arsenal of computing power at his disposal would want to remake "Kong" (heck, it was already done, with super-campy results, in 1976). Today, the question is not how the effects are done; it's what can be done and how good will it look. That's where Peter Jackson comes in.

The man behind the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has created a remake unlike any other in recent memory (in particular anything based on Japanese horror or an American sitcom). Mr. Jackson not only improves on the original, he somehow seems to create the film that "King Kong" was always meant to be. Where this new "Kong" succeeds so brilliantly is by managing to treat the original material with respect without being overly reverent. The basic story is in place, all the elements are there (in some cases, key bits of dialogue are pilfered verbatim), but Mr. Jackson is not afraid to delve deeper into the characters in order to get the most out of the movie. Though the CGI is rampant in "Kong", Mr. Jackson doesn't sacrifice story for spectacle. He and his longtime co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens give each character a motivation and a journey. The writers don't like to leave questions unanswered, though they never quite explain those savage Skull Island natives, or island's gigantic ecosystem for that matter.

The film is set during the same time period as the original and, for a brief moment during a mention of "Fay doing a picture with RKO", it almost appears that it actually co-exists with the original movie. The film is worth seeing if only for Mr. Jackson's recreation of Depression Era New York. The cityscape is not so much realistic as it is hyper-real. Everything is a bit more New York than it could possibly be. But that works for a story in which everything - the characters, the emotions, the ape - is a little bigger.

As in the original, megalomaniacal director Carl Denham (Jack Black) needs a hit. He finds down-on-her-luck Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) stealing fruit and convinces her to be his lead actress in a glamorous adventure picture. Carl, Ann and Jack Driscoll (in this case a playwright rather than first mate) go on a long sea voyage in search of the mysterious Skull Island where Denham gets a hard lesson in "gorilla filmmaking".

All this is prelude, of course, to the appearance of Kong himself. And like everything else in the film, here Mr. Jackson does not disappoint. Kong is a miraculous feat of CGI wizardry. Integrating seamlessly with his live action co-stars, Kong is a living, breathing part of every scene. Andy Serkis, whose movements and voice created Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" series, here continues to pioneer the genre of digital performance. Mr. Serkis makes Kong's movements perfectly apelike, but there is just enough of an element of humanity to him. He feels real and he really feels.

Mr. Jackson's "Kong" is no longer the one-way love story of the original. The relationship between Ann and Kong is amazingly believable. Naomi Watts is the perfect blend of damsel-in-distress and plucky heroine. That's the real feat of the film; it's easy to see what these two find in each other.

Of course, this new "Kong" is not without its flaws. The CGI effects start to come apart during a dino-stampede in the jungle and while its three-hour running time never drags, it definitely takes a while to get going. Also, the casting of Jack Black as Carl Denham never quite gels. The original Denham, Robert Armstrong, was supposedly an avatar for director Merian C. Cooper, so it's possible that Mr. Jackson sees something of himself in Mr. Black. That fact is far more interesting than Mr. Black's performance which is shallow to the point of near comedy. Mr. Black is such a natural comedian that it's hard not to laugh when he tries to be serious. And even harder to believe him as an obsessive filmmaker.

Mr. Jackson also can't resist going back to his horror roots for one particularly disturbing scene on the jungle floor involving enormous worms. The sequence itself is a reference to the infamous "lost spider pit" footage from the original "Kong". Mr. Cooper cut that scene from his film because it "dragged the plot to a halt". Mr. Jackson might have learned something from that choice.

But none of these points detract from the sheer grandeur and spectacle that is "King Kong". Mr. Jackson has taken his love for the source material and poured it into a remake that would make the original makers proud. No small feat. But then, there's nothing small about "King Kong".

What did you think?

Movie title King Kong
Release year 2005
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary There is a lot to be learned from Peter Jackson's stupendous remake of 'King Kong,' not the least of which is that it's still possible to create a huge, special effects-laden blockbuster with characters, brains and heart.
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