I was super hyped to see Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake coming hot off the heels of his LOTR trilogy. Have to admit that I was a little dissapointed, so let’s see how Jon from The Film Brief felt about the film.
“No film has captivated my imagination more than King Kong. I`m making movies today because I saw this film when I was 9 years old. It has been my sustained dream to reinterpret this classic story for a new age.” – Peter Jackson, 2003
I’ve always thought that Peter Jackson’s King Kong – which barely broke even in 2005 despite being Universal’s fourth-highest grossing film ever at the time – would be a lot more popular if more people were familiar with Merian C. Cooper’s original 1933 film. This is, after all, a love letter to that movie. At every step of this lavish, three-hour production, Jackson harks back to not only the original, but the Hollywood that existed during the original’s production; the sleazy film producers, the ambitious but inherently dishonest and exploitative film-maker, the subservient heroine and a male actor who is a shining example of the sexist star system that existed at the time. Jackson makes his version of King Kong more subversive than the original in crafting a strong character out of Ann Darrow, who sees beauty in the giant ape Kong and in his eyes, a reflection of the shortcomings of the world she inhabits.
King Kong is a big picture in the old-school sense of the term. It is, of course, a signature Peter Jackson epic, and at three hours (three hours and twenty minutes extended) is too long. Narratively it’s a bit choppy – I appreciated the early focus on the life and times of these characters in 1933 Depression-era New York City, but as the film progresses there are so many strands that Jackson literally forgets about. The relationship between Hayes and Jimmy, for instance, begins to develop as a touching mentor-mentee before Hayes comes to a grisly end (the black guy is one of the first to go in this movie, disappointingly) and the story is forgotten.
In a way, you can forgive Jackson for giving most of his (human) characters short shrift. This is, after all, King Kong, not The Voyage of the Venture and those who Inhabit It. The world of Skull Island is the focal point of King Kong from the middle third on, and Jackson creates a land right out of a creative 8-year-old’s imagination. The action on Skull Island is detailed and intense, with the mystery of Kong – first as an entity, then as a character – an intriguing hook. Andy Serkis plays Kong in what remains, eight years on, a remarkable technical achievement. Kong himself is the most emotive character in the movie, expressive in his body language, vocalisations and (most surprisingly of all considering the inability of digital rendering to get it right) his eyes. Kong is a wounded and lonely creature, a wild animal that nonetheless has as much right to exist freely as the humans trying to capture him.
At three hours long, King Kong is perhaps a bit too long. Peter Jackson is far too sentimental about his own pictures, and I imagine wouldn’t have too many people close to him willing to tell him that swathes of the movie could do with editing. With regards to the action on the island, it’s a case of too much of a good thing. The hour-plus stretch on the island is everything one could want of a remake of King Kong, and as Jackson’s work tends to do, appeals to the eight-year-old in all of us. There are also plenty of evocations and nods to the original – a fight between Kong and a T-Rex that Merian C. Cooper could only dream of bringing to life, and a run-in with some massive spiders. I’m usually not a fan of throwing in references to old movies (particularly in remakes of said movies), but Jackson manages to strike a balance between appreciation of what things past, and carving a new and exciting way of presenting the material.
Eventually, as the tragedy demands, Kong is captured and returned to New York City. There is he is put on display humiliatingly as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” before escaping and being reunited with Ann Darrow. After chilling out in New York for a while (a stretch of the film that is surprisingly fun to watch and moving) they are hunted down, cornered on the roof of the Empire State Building, and finally Kong is brought down. The final half an hour of King Kong is where the real emotional heart lies, and Jackson treats it with a welcome delicacy that is in direct contrast with his rock-em sock-em treatment of the Skull Island section of the film. This is one part of the movie that he was right to leave as is. All of the film’s thematic chickens come home to roost, and the tragic finale is actually more satisfying than the conclusion of the 1933 original. King Kong is a story that needs to be treated with equal parts of boyish wonder and mature reverence. Peter Jackson is a director that is capable of evoking both of those moods. And while his boyishness is perhaps a reason why he has an aversion to cutting anything from his films, it also allows him to look at stories like King Kong from a unique perspective.
Here is another example of Jackson’s love for the original — a lost scene from the original that he recreated in Merian C. Cooper’s style:
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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Jonathan Fisher is the creator and writer of The Film Brief website and podcast. Be sure to check out his site as well as like his page on facebook here and follow along on twitter @thefilmbrief.
Nice review. I know I’m the minority here, but I personally think Jackson’s remake of King Kong is better than all of the LOTR movies.
Thanking you. And I agree, although rewatching LOTR after seeing The Hobbit, I appreciated the original trilogy way more than I did at the time. Wwaaaayyy too long though.