Ever since I was a kid, Kong was my favorite monster movie. I grew up with the 1976 remake, where instead of ascending the Empire State Building the gentle giant climbed the Twin Towers. I soon saw the original 1933 film and was both amazed and awed by the story. The 1976 remake differed in many respects from that original black and white by Merian C. Cooper, but Peter Jackson’s retelling of King Kong is not only loyal to the first film, it actually manages to bring it to life in a way I never could have imagined.
There aren’t too many films today that I would recommend seeing in the theater, but King Kong is one of them. The experience of witnessing the amazing effects on the big screen was like being a kid again, completely absorbed in a fantastical world of magic and wonder. The characters are all bigger than life, not just because they stand twenty feet tall on the silver screen, but because they are heroic and bombastic in an over-the-top adventure.
I was initially concerned about this remake of King Kong. I’ve railed against Hollywood’s obsession with retreading old ground instead of producing original material. And this time they were tackling something that made an impression on me as a child, one of those rare experiences when a movie opens your mind to new possibilities and allows you to see the world just a little differently than you did before. Sure, Jackson was at the helm, which was comforting since I’ve loved so many of his works, including The Frighteners and, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (well, the first two, anyway). But that didn’t remove that nervous knot in the pit of my gut.
That was until I got the opportunity to see the film earlier this week. In only a few moments, that knot was untied and I was on the ride of a lifetime.
King Kong is a singular experience of non-stop adventure. The visuals are gloriously beautiful, with moments of shear excitement interrupted only briefly by quiet interludes. Jackson has not only made a stunningly wonderful remake of a classic, he’s made a classic. I can’t help but think that Cooper himself would have marveled at how Jackson presented his tale.
The story, for those of you unfamiliar with Kong, follows an overzealous and self-obsessed filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black), who secretly journey’s to a mythical island in hopes of capturing unique visuals for a film. Along with a small crew, he casts the beautiful Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) as his star, and tricks the film’s writer, Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), into accompanying them. Following a cryptic map, they discover Skull Island, and soon find it is populated by strange and brutal native people who offer Darrow up for sacrifice to the island’s most feared inhabitant King Kong.
When Darrow is taken away by the 25-foot gorilla, Driscoll, Denham, and the crew of their boat journey through the island in hopes of rescuing her. But danger lies around every tree in this bizarre and macabre corner of the world, where dinosaurs roam free and insects grow to the size of cars.
If King Kong has a flaw, it is perhaps that the first 20 to 25 minutes are a bit slow. The characters take a little longer than necessary to get to Skull Island. But this careful pacing helps prepare you for the next two hours, which never stops moving as the story goes from one breathtaking action sequence to another. I could get into detail of what happens, but I really wouldn’t want to take away the experience for the audience of seeing it first hand. They are, quite simply, jaw dropping in their splendor and eye popping in their detail. And the sequence with the insects is by far the most fun I’ve had in a theater in more than 20 years. Even the music, crafted in just two months by James Newton Howard after Howard Shore left the project, is incredible.
Peter Jackson has created a wonderfully unique experience with King Kong, capturing the same sense of adventure and fun of the original. I can only guess, but I imagine the feelings this film may invoke are not too dissimilar from what audiences in 1933 must have felt when they first watched that great ape grace the screen.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. There are moments that come off as painfully cheesy. In fact, there were several times when the audience laughed when things were supposed to be dramatic. But that’s all in keeping with the tone of the original film, where moments that may have been subtle today were made more dramatic. And, while my wife strongly disagreed with me, I ultimately felt that Jack Black was perhaps miscast in this role. Aside from my feeling that the part of Denham was more fitting for an older actor, it was nearly impossible for me to ever take him seriously. Perhaps had Black done some more straight roles prior to Kong I wouldn’t have had this problem. The same thing happened with me and Jim Carrey, who I couldn’t take seriously in his many dramatic roles until Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But I recognize that others may not have this same issue, and I don’t exactly fault Black for it.
Regardless of these minor flaws, King Kong is amazingly fun. None of its problems come close to the incredible things it gets right. The special effects are stunning, the characters all are rich with detail and depth, and the story keeps you on the edge of your seat regardless of the fact that you will most likely know exactly how it is going to end.