Saw KING KONG at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood a few days ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about it in depth, but the Christmas season has prevented me from achieving that goal so far. In the meantime, let me just hit a few points:
The film is so overwhelmed with computer-generated imagery that it undermines the impact of many scenes, which convey no real sense of danger because they clearly consist of actors running around on beautiful but phony backdrops. The thought that kept running through my mind was: if I ever get a chance to talk to Peter Jackson about this, I’ll have to ask, “Great animated movie – did you ever consider shooting it in live-action?”
The sheer length bogs down the film so much that it’s hard to get excited when the good stuff finally arrives. Unlike LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG just doesn’t have a story that requires a three-hour running time; the extra minutes are just unnecessary padding. I suspect there’s a good ninety minute movie stuffed in here somewhere, and this is a case where I hope the inevitable “Director’s Cut DVD” will be shorter rather than longer.
One big mistake that Jackson and his co-writers make is that they do all the work for you. Whereas the original KING KONG is a dream-like fairy tale that invites interpretation, the new version has been over-analyzed to the point that the richness has been drained out of it. There’s no room for you to read between the lines; everything’s been spelled out. Stanley Kubrick once made comments to the effect that, when you explain everything, then it means nothing. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with Jackson’s KING KONG.
In spite of this criticisms, there is a lot in the film that is truly wonderful. There are moments when you forget that Kong is just a CGI creation. Although the design of his body isn’t particularly impressive (he looks pot-bellied, compared to the classic original), his face is wonderfully detailed and expressive, effectively conveying both fearsome rage and touching pathos.
The ending in particular is awesome, with the shoot-out atop the Empire State building sweeping the audience up in a delirious state of vertigo beyond anything I ever felt while watching the old version — it really feels as if you’re poised precarious 1,000 feet up in the air and about to plummet downward at any second. (It’s also cool that ape-makeup-master Rick Baker — who played Kong in the Dino DeLaurentiis disaster of 1976 — is one of the pilots who fells the giant ape in this version.)
One other note worth mentioning: Although this is officially a remake of the original KING KONG, Jackson’s version also incorporates elements from the DeLaurentiis version (Ann Darrow overcomes her fear of Kong very quickly) and from the 1933 sequel, SON OF KONG. In the later case, the film opens with the Carl Denham character (here played by Jack Black) fleeing by boat for Skull Island before the law can catch up with him. This made more sense in SON OF KONG, wherein Robert Armstrong’s version of the character was being indicted for the death and destruction caused by King Kong in the previous film.
There is also a fitfully comic SON OF KONG-like tone that intrudes inappropriately: despite explicit literary references to Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS (which tell us in no uncertain terms that this is not just a fun adventure movie but a confrontation with dark ancient mysteries), the film goes for goofy comic relief and occasionally even outright silliness: Ann Darrow wins Kong’s heart by performing her second-rate vaudeville routine (which includes juggling some pebbles, big deal), and later they slide around on the iced-over lake in New York’s Central Park, where for some miraculous reason Kong manages to avoid literally freezing his ass off.
It’s really too bad. What makes Kong interesting is that he is a fearsome monster felled by a single weakness: his love for Ann Darrow. Making him act cutesy undermines the potency of the myth. They should have saved this scene for the inevitable sequel, when Universal Pictures teams up with Sony to remake the tongue-in-cheek KING KONG VS GODZILLA.