Published Jan 01, 2006Second only to feature updates of semi-successful television shows, the classic film remake is at best a risky business. Huge budget flops like Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young make the "big monster" update even more risky unless, that is, it's in the hands of genre-revivalist Peter Jackson, who reinvented the fantasy movie wheel with The Lord of the Rings.
But reinvention isn't what Jackson is after with his lifelong dream project, King Kong despite doubling its running time and tinkering with and expanding its dramatic arc, Jackson's King Kong is a loving homage to the 1933 original, right down to reinserting a famously lost (or never completed) scene called the "spider pit," and throwing in a few collectible items from the original too.
Jackson's Kong is an old-school epic that shares more with long-lost Saturday matinee serials than with most effects-driven modern (or post-modern) interpretations. Buckles get swashed, damsels find themselves in distress, even grumpy sea farers chomp on cigars and growl menacingly before throwing themselves into the heroic fray. But the success or failure of Jackson's update rests on his ability to accomplish two things amongst the layers of CG effects, miniatures and matte paintings: he has to build a believable relationship between Kong and his beauty, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts takes on the Fay Wray role), and he has to make Kong a convincingly tragic hero.
It's in contemplating those two factors that one realises exactly what a challenge Jackson faces; after all, no true film adaptation of LOTR had ever been accomplished, but what the Kiwi director attempts here is to demand audience attention for a story that's more than seven decades old with an ending that is one of the most iconic ever filmed. Even fans that know nothing about the 1933 original can guess what Kong's fate will be once he scales the famed Empire State Building. But this is the trick that Jackson has pulled off in spades. By expanding and building on "relationship" scenes between Kong and Darrow and by wisely setting up Adrien Brody's Jack Driscoll as a false romantic hope Jackson manages to turn Kong from a brutal killing monster into something akin to a beaten dog, one whose defences have overwhelmed (but not completely destroyed) his capacity to love.
Aside from the tender relationship at the film's core, Jackson fills the screen with one rollicking adventure after another; it's a spirited (albeit not always plausible) energy that hasn't been matched since Spielberg and Lucas first introduced us to Indiana Jones. Whether it's amping up the dinosaur drama on Skull Island or expanding on a rampage through 1930s New York City, Jackson wants a thrill ride and he delivers. However, King Kong is not a completely flawless effort the opening third (before arriving at Skull Island) drags more than it should, and not just because impatient viewers can't wait to see Kong. For someone with such meticulous attention to every effects detail the design of Kong is particularly stunning there are a few minutes that look uncharacteristically sloppy, enough so that one wonders if it is in fact homage. And the score by James Newton Howard (after an original score by LOTR composer Howard Shore was rejected) plays oddly like a revision of LOTR, hitting many of the same emotional notes.
There are nitpicky points to a film as confident and accomplished as Kong, however, and when half-embarrassed tears are shed when Kong makes his final, doomed climb into film history, you can't help but give Jackson his due for getting us once more. (Universal)