Ed. note– As a kid, I always loved Thanksgiving because Channel 9 ran a King Kong marathon that also featured SON OF KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. This Thanksgiving week, I decided to celebrate by reviewing a King Kong flick. As the Classic Kong is already a Hell of Fame inductee, I opted for Peter Jackson’s CGI heavy remake. And man, do I still hate this flick. Read on to see why.– P.F.
In my very early years, KING KONG became one of my favorite pictures. Its sense of wonderment and adventure amazed me as a young child, an amazement which stays with me to this day every time I watch. KING KONG apparently had the same effect on Peter Jackson, who, coming off his massive success with THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, decided to show that love in remaking it. What he produced only amazes me in how misguided, lengthy and, worst of all, bloated his KONG is.
Jackson’s remake follows pretty much the exact same story, with the same beats. Flim flam filmmaker Carl Denham discovers Ann Darrow and gets her on a boat to Skull Island, where they, the film crew and boat crew, find a prehistoric island that is home to superstitious natives, huge beasts of all kind, and the King himself, the island god Kong. When Kong snatches Ann and takes off for his jungle home, Denham, Jack Driscoll and a group of adventurers make hot pursuit through dangerous environs. This will culminate with Kong atop the Empire State Building in fierce battle with fighter planes as New York City awaits in peril on the streets below. With almost exactly the same plot, enhancements in CGI and Jackson’s Oscar winning touch behind the film, what could go wrong? Well, just about everything.
Within a sea of missteps in this film, the worst offender is the script. Jackson and screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens seem to have had sweeping epic on the mind when they got together to write KONG. But “sweeping epic” translates into overlong, plodding movement before going bonkers after the first 70 minutes. That first hour-plus involves setting up Ann and her infatuation with playwright Jack Driscoll and Denham’s shady dealings with studio execs, and that’s before they depart on the interminably long boat section of the film. In an adventure flick, there would be no need for this overabundance of exposition if the characters were sterling; most of these characters aren’t even likable. And much of it is misguided; the bond between young scamp Jimmy and his mentor Hayes has absolutely no bearing on the themes, plot or outcome of the film. Why it gets more attention than the three minutes worth of romance between Ann and Jack I’ll never know. What I do know is that it’s bad writing.
The screenwriting faults don’t halt once we get to Skull Island. In fact, they get worse. All I need to highlight this is to discuss one scene: the Kong v. V-Rex battle.
Kong’s fight with the T-Rex in the original stands as one of my favorite monster scenes of all. The ape and the lizard king go fist-and-tooth, scrapping on a level that only a giant gorilla and a dinosaur could. When I first saw Jackson’s take on this in the theatre, I was thankful for some action. But this coming from the man who would take five pages of a Tolkein book and blow them up into a full three-hour film, the scene is a pile-on. The new version involves: two horse-sized lizards, not one but three enhanced V-Rexes, a ravine, a vine-filled canyon, Ann implausibly escaping death more than a dozen times, and a tacked-on redo of the classic battle.
Forget in just how many ways this makes no sense (Why would the first V-Rex chase her, when it’s already got a full meal in its mouth? How is she able to outrun 20-feet tall apex predators? How are her back and neck not broken after all that jostling around?) and focus on how Jackson constructs the scene. Lizard chasing Ann not big enough? Throw in a V-Rex. One V-Rex not enough for you? Throw in another. Need some giant ape action? Toss in Kong. Too easy for Kong to handle two V-Rexes? Add one more. Not enough peril? Have Kong and the Rexes fall into a canyon and swing from vines as they still fight over Ann. And the scene’s still not OVER. After nine minutes of furious nonsense, it ends up right where the classic started: Kong against Rex. Though I enjoy some of the action, it reeks of bloat. I understand Jackson was trying to amplify the danger, but when Ann falls off her vine and lands on the snout of a V-Rex, it’s closer to parody than peril. I’d have rather that Jackson took five minutes to set up one monstrous-sized Mortal Kombat match between Kong and the big lizard, than 10 minutes with all the bloat that goes with those ridiculous elements I mentioned.
That bloat isn’t limited to just that one island scene, mind you. There’s brontosaurs chasing the rescue party in a scene that’s more Laurel and Hardy than KING KONG; Driscoll’s rescue of Ann, which has them flying on a giant bat; and most icky of all, the bug scene. If you’re a fan of the classic KONG, you’ve likely heard about the scene in the ravine under the log, which got cut by censors for being too violent for the times. Well folks, for your viewing pain Jackson has reinserted it in his movie, and taken it straight to overkill. There are so many disgusting creepy crawlies in here that I get grossed out watching it, and I’m not an insectophobe. Jackson overindulges in thousands of bugs, some with antennae, some with teeth, some with stingers. He also gets to indulge his arachnid fetish by including Skull Island’s take on giant spiders. If the characters in this flick didn’t prove to have the resiliency of Wile E. Coyote, this would have turned into one of Jackson’s early career splatter flicks.
X Marks the Oscar: KING KONG boasts a multitude of Oscar winners and nominees. Start with Peter Jackson for directing RETURN OF THE KING, as well as Best Picture, and Screenplay alongside Boyen and Walsh. Howard Shore won for Best Song and Score for the same. Adrien Brody had already won Best Actor for THE PIANIST, and co-star Naomi Watts has been nominated for 2 Oscars. The film itself won 3 technical Oscars. And Jackson even employed Black’s ORANGE COUNTY co-star Colin Hanks, son of 2-time back-to-back Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks!
As for those humans, they aren’t very convincing. Jack Black goes so over the top as Denham, who values film and fortune over human life, that it’s all volume and mugging for the camera. Adrien Brody, who’s proven himself to be a great actor in both drama and action horror flicks such as PREDATORS, must be kicking himself for ever taking this part; he becomes just another face in the crowd of Jimmies and Hayeses, so much so that I felt sorry for Brody during my last viewing. His arc is supposed to be his romance with Ann, but Jackson forces this into about three minutes of the film before throwing it out. As for Naomi Watts… oh boy.
There’s a lot to unpack with Ann. I don’t blame Watts, who gives a suitable portrayal of a woman falling in love… with a 25-foot ape. Herein lies Jackson’s one major deviation from the classic, and it’s crazy. Fay Wray gets a lot of flack in some corners for screaming so much, but if you factor in that she’s been kidnaped and romanced by a giant gorilla who’s known to eat his brides, can you blame her? Jackson’s take on this is far beyond ridiculous. His Ann initially tries to appease Kong by doing parts of her vaudeville act, juggling stones and walking like an Egyptian. Once he gets pushy with her for his own amusement, she scolds him. Yes, she scolds a 25-foot ape. After he comes to her defense against the V-Rexes, she pretty much becomes his girlfriend. She doesn’t want Jack to save her; she tries to stop the boat crew from chloroforming Kong; and, in a telling scene that involves Kong and an unconscious, about-to-be-killed Jack in NYC, she chooses to go with Kong. Hell, she even tries to stop fighter planes from shooting him off the Empire State Building. While I can explain some of the leading lady’s similar reaction in the 1976 version through the time period’s “hippie swinging free love let’s preserve the environment and all God’s creatures,” there’s no way I can buy into Ann wanting to have a serious relationship with King Kong here. And thanks for forcing me to watch Ann and Kong ice skate and make snow angels, Peter Jackson. Because the last thing anyone watching a movie named KING KONG wants to see at the two-hour plus point is Ann and Kong ice skating and making snow angels.
The only things to like in this flick are the score and some of the computer animation. Howard Shore abandoned the project, but there are definite touches of his music throughout, and it’s great stuff as per usual with the composer. I can complain about lots of stuff in this flick, but Jackson has a way for using miniatures and animation with the best of them. Though I’m less fond of the animation of 30s era NYC, I can stand behind a lot of the set pieces on Skull Island and its creatures.
But even here I can find fault in Kong himself. Classic Kong could be fierce, but also expressed a range of emotions through his face. This Kong merely growls a lot and looks angrier than a bouncer at 4 am trying to break up a barroom brawl. This Kong is far too focused on acting and looking like a real silverback gorilla, with shaggy arms and potbelly. He’s got authenticity, but it’s not cool like Classic Kong’s look.
Look, I understand Peter Jackson was doing his best to honor the classic. His intentions were the best, and probably the purest. I also understand that he made this flick post-LOTR, in which he’d already fallen into a pattern of filmmaking that spanned into his later Hobbit epics. And believe me, it’s no fun writing a review for a long film with a multitude of faults, especially when I like the filmmaker. But Jackson took that wonderment both he and I had as a kid, and made a sprawling mess of it. I’m sure he’s a fan of his work here. I am certainly not. If I want Kong, I’ll stick to the classic, which still amazes me at age 44. If I want Jackson, I’ll stick to the LOTR flicks and his earlier, much more daring efforts such as BAD TASTE and MEET THE FEEBLES. But there’s no part of me that will ever want Kong and Jackson together.