The Return of the Kong
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As he was finishing up work on his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson often told journalists that he was committed to following that epic undertaking with one or two smaller films. Instead, hes gone and unleashed an 8,000-pound gorilla. King Kong is massive, all right: At 190 minutes and carrying a $200 million price tag about what the three Rings pictures cost put together it roars and pounds its chest and says, Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron Im the king of the jungle now! And if, in the original Kong (1933), it was the mighty ape himself who earned billing as the eighth wonder of the world, this time around its the movie that lays claim to that title. After enduring three hours of it, I found myself wondering if such wonders would ever cease.
King Kong isnt terrible, but its something that none of Jacksons previous movies ever was its enervating. Right from the start, the film feels mired in excess: An opening montage set to Al Jolson singing Im Sitting on Top of the World cuts from the image of Hoovervilles dotting the Central Park landscape to performers auditioning for a vaudeville show to bread lines snaking through the streets of New York City then back to the vaudeville show then . . . well, you get the idea. Eventually, Jackson moves on to a second scene and then a third, but the crippling pace of the film has been set, and its rarely deviated from. It takes King Kong nearly the full first hour just to orchestrate the chance meeting of embattled movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) and starving starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and have them sail from the isle of Manhattan for the isle of Skull events neatly consigned to the first reel of the 1933 version. Yet the only thing gained by Jacksons prolonging of his (and an army of effects wizards) meticulous re-creations of Depression-era New York is a sense of just how much, in the space between Rings and Kong, the director has become punch-drunk on his own moviemaking wizardry. The Rings movies, despite their Wagnerian bombast, still managed to maintain an elemental modesty which is another way of saying that the elaborate CGI always seemed to serve the story and the characters instead of coming at their expense. Kong, on the other hand, never misses an opportunity for ostentation. Its like the nouveau riche on the block who drives his Lamborghini to the corner store when walking would suffice.
Jackson seems stuck in spectacle mode, having all but lost sight of original Kong directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsacks industrious, B-movie crudity and initially, the Skull Island scenes are scarcely an improvement. Working together with his usual screenplay collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson seizes every opportunity to distend the action, delaying the entrance of his star attraction and deploying an army of poorly realized secondary characters Denhams put-upon assistant (Colin Hanks), his resident screenwriter (Adrien Brody), a mysterious stowaway (Jamie Bell) and a naysaying captain (Thomas Kretschmann, who was Brodys Aryan savior in The Pianist) who serve little discernible purpose other than to provide bait for the dinosaurs, steroidal spiders and other fearsome beasties that inhabit the fog-shrouded expanse. Of course, in all previous versions of Kong, Skull Island has been a haven for prehistoric fauna, but who knew that Jackson would take that as his cue to make a movie that, for most of its second hour, feels like a cross between Jurassic Park and that ersatz insect-world docudrama, The Hellstrom Chronicle? Which is to say nothing of the scene in which Darrow is abducted under cover of night by Skull Islands indigenous tribespeople and then suspended over a fiery pit of doom as a sacrificial offering to the great god Kong. While Cooper and Schoedsack certainly werent going to win any accolades from the ACLU for their view of native people, Jacksons cavalcade of ooga-booga savages makes Memoirs of a Geisha seem like a monument to ethnic sensitivity. You cant believe Jackson actually expects you to take that scene seriously, but he does, and like so much else about his Kong, it lacks the comic book insouciance of the 1976 John Guillermindirected remake, a timely parable in which the lesson learned by Kong was that, in the world of men, the oil companies are king.
What Jacksons Kong gets right and its a big (no pun intended) thing is its depiction of the relationship between the beautiful ingénue and her primate paramour. The 1933 film was advertised as The strangest story ever conceived by man, and of course, the enduring appeal of Kong lies rooted in that whiff of bestiality, the promise of a primeval fairy tale where the proverbial beast isnt turned into a handsome prince by the redeeming kiss of beauty. It was only with the 1976 Kong that the idea grew to include the possibility that said beauty wasnt merely sympathetic to the attractions of said beast, but perhaps turned on a bit herself, crystallized in that disarming moment when Jessica Langes Dwan falls (or does she jump?) into the cargo hold of the ship transporting Kong back to New York and lands smack between the apes powerful thighs. Jackson, though, takes the idea further than anyone else has before. Hes turned the Kong-Darrow coupling into a full-fledged seriocomic romance.
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When Jackson finally arrives at the scene where Kong, having absconded with Ann, begins to play coochie-coo with her like a child with a doll and she responds by performing a vaudeville-style routine for him some juggling, a few pratfalls, a touch of soft-shoe its the first time you understand why he really wanted to remake Kong; you see that hes turning it into a touching commentary on the eternal communication battle between the sexes. Then Ann grows tired of entertaining her captor, says shes calling it quits, and Kong sets about wrecking his own lair. Suddenly, the massive creature looks pathetic through Anns eyes; she sees how much hes just like all the other men shes ever known. But after he saves her life a few times wrestling pointy-toothed T-Rexes to the ground with his bare hands and biting the heads off vampire bats she feels contrite for spurning him. Maybe, she starts to think, this ostensible brute is really a chivalrous hero deep down inside, and her desire becomes almost tragically palpable. Tragic, because weve been down this road before, and we know that at the end of the day, the strictures of civilized society will demand that Ann take up with a nice, clean-cut white guy (e.g. Brody) instead of a big, black hairy ape.
The delicacy of the interplay between Watts who clearly was born to play bubbleheaded struggling actresses and the giant computer-generated Kong (acted on the set by the inimitable Andy Serkis, a.k.a. Gollum) is extraordinary. It may even be the screens most emotionally satisfying animal attraction since Jean Cocteaus La Belle et la Bête. In particular, the final scenes in New York, atop the Empire State Building, are devastating in a way that the original Kong didnt even attempt, and they encourage a forgiving attitude toward all that is wrong with the rest of the picture. But its a more forgiving attitude than Im afraid I can muster, for there were too many moments during King Kong when I felt I was witnessing the end of cinema, the final obfuscation between movies made by men and those made by machines. Perhaps Im hopelessly out of touch, but I remain steadfast in my belief that size does matter, and that the best things in life come in small packages.
KING KONG | Directed by PETER JACKSON | Written by FRAN WALSH, PHILIPPA BOYENS and JACKSON, based on a story by MERIAN C. COOPER and EDGAR WALLACE | Produced by JAN BLENKIN, CAROLYNNE CUNNINGHAM, FRAN WALSH and JACKSON | Released by Universal | Citywide
Click here to read Joshuah Bearman's Monkey Love: Intimacy on the primate family tree.
Click here to read Ron Stringer's The Gorilla Inside Me: Preparations for the return to Skull Island.
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