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"Overblown and overextended, this version of 'King Kong' is an exercise in excess."
"(The) most extraordinary feature of the updated 'King Kong' has to be the exhausting attention spent on its lavish special effects."
"It was an overabundance of enthusiasm that killed the story."
King Kong  


Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschmann
Preston: Colin Hanks
King Kong: Andy Serkis
Lumpy: Andy Serkis
Hayes: Evan Parke
Review December 2005

Everyone knows the classic tale of "Beauty and the Beast." But in 1933, there was "King Kong," a fairy tale in its own right - an adventure that turned a young Fay Wray into a household name; not to mention, a mythical 25-foot primate. Now, some seventy years later comes this update to Merian C. Cooper's influential work. Directed by the Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, the film tells the harrowing tale of Ann Darrow, an aspiring actress, who finds herself impoverished during the Great Depression. Without recourse, she joins a team of filmmakers, journeying to a mysterious island to shoot a groundbreaking film. And it is there, where she encounters the legendary beast known as King Kong, a creature that will forever change her life. Bigger and bolder, this modern retelling of "King Kong" is a wonder to behold. Visually intensive, the film uses technology and verve to recreate an epic tragedy with measurable effect. But almost to the detriment of the story itself. Overblown and overextended, this version of "King Kong" is an exercise in excess.

In 1933, as America languishes over the Great Depression, vaudeville actress and New Yorker, Ann Darrow finds herself scrimping for work. Unwilling to compromise and submit to a career as a burlesque dancer, she peruses the streets of Manhattan looking for some kind of respectable employment. But sadly, nothing is to be found. And in an act of desperation, she tries to steal an apple from a local fruit vendor. Although she gets caught, she is saved by the generosity of Carl Denham, a struggling filmmaker in search of a leading lady for his most recent and unfinished film. Says Denham, "Somewhere out there is a woman born to play this role...a woman who will journey into the heart of the unknown...toward a fateful meeting that changes everything." In Denham's eyes, that woman is Darrow. So, he quickly pays the vendor and wines and dines her hoping that she will join he and his crew aboard the S.S. Venture on their way to Singapore to finish the film. Although Darrow is reluctant of the raconteur at first, she eventually agrees when she realizes that her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll, will also be along for the ride.

Of course, Denham has no intention of going to Singapore. In dire financial straits himself, he changes the ship's course, opting for the illusive Skull Island, a location so obscure and mysterious, it's bound to make him famous. Cutting through thick fog and ship splitting rocks, the Venture crashes its way toward the shoreline. And once afoot, the crew sets out to finish their film, but instead, stumbles upon the ancient ruins of an uncivilized tribe. Though they make peaceful gestures, a violent confrontation erupts, and they are fortunate enough to make it back to the ship alive. However, shortly before they cast off, Ann Darrow is kidnapped. And once more, they must valiantly explore the island, this time on a rescue mission. Unbeknownst to them of course are the hidden dangers of the land before time - an island fraught with prehistoric dinosaurs, oversized insects, and one enormous, silverback gorilla known as King Kong.

As it stands today, the 1933 version of "King Kong" is revered as a cutting edge masterpiece. Using Willis O'Brien's groundbreaking stop motion animation, rear screen projection, glass paintings, and tabletop miniatures, the film broke the mold when it came to movie magic. Starring Fay Raye, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot, Merian C. Cooper's classic tale of brute and beauty continues to inspire imaginations - a forgotten civilization, a group of hunters in search of fame and fortune, a damsel in distress, a dashing hero, and a mythical gorilla. All of the characters and their stories are fabulously interwoven into a surprisingly, emotional journey of escapism and desperation. And it benefits from an animated King Kong, capable of showing personality traits like jealousy, rage, and sadness. Now, seventy-two years later, with the benefit of digital rendering, the screen legend returns with a stunning face-lift, as emotionally sophisticated as ever.

"I first saw King Kong when I was about eight or nine year's old?and it made such an impact on me, such a huge impression, that it was the moment in time when I had decided I wanted to be a filmmaker." Those are the recollections of Peter Jackson, a director who passionately infused the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien into "The Lord of the Rings" and who successfully infused the same amount of spirit within "King Kong." Jackson's respect for the original is so great that he opted for a remake rather than a re-imagining, faithfully following the original arc, the original timeframe, and the original characters on their desperate journeys. The choice was a wise one, keeping the film's fantasy grounded with the reality of a 1930's world - a time period where an unexplored, prehistoric island remained plausible; the glum and discomfort of the Depression Era remained a key influence on all of the characters' motives; and a 25 foot tall gorilla atop the Empire State Building could be attacked by antiquated propeller planes without modern concerns.

The most noticeable and most extraordinary feature of the updated "King Kong" has to be the exhausting attention spent on its lavish special effects. Astonishingly, "Kong" features more effects work and more creatures than the entire Rings trilogy combined! After all, over 90,000 buildings were created to maintain a 1930s three dimensional Manhattan, a unique weathering software for snow and rain was created specifically for the film, and the environs of Skull Island were digitally rendered to give it the same look and feel as the original film. Once again, Andy Serkis dons the creature costume, replete with hundreds of sensors, to mimic every facial expression on King Kong. And the level of detail is so amazing, particularly on close-ups, that through sound and appearance, you feel as though you are Ann Darrow in the palm of Kong's hand. The only downside to this achievement is that some effects appear less convincing than others, such as a dinosaur stampede overrunning humans or any number of scenes where characters are fighting, falling, leaping, or being eaten.

Says Carl Denham, "Somewhere out there is a woman born to play this role...a woman who will journey into the heart of the unknown...toward a fateful meeting that changes everything." That woman is Ann Darrow, played classically and heroically by Naomi Watts. Much like Faye Wray, Watts runs, dances, and screams with grace. And throughout the story, she clings to a glimmer of hope in spite of overwhelming sadness. Watts is accompanied by Jack Black and Adrien Brody, who bring humor, heroism and hardship to the story. Black especially, whose Carl Denham is overly energetic and yet, so desperate that even his good intentions have monstrous flaws. And speaking of monstrous flaws, by allowing Darrow into his world, King Kong instigates his own downfall. Along the way, however, his qualities are magnificently constructed, translated in such a way as to differentiate emotions, from a brutal, animalistic beast to a vulnerable and protective primate.

The story of "King Kong" is a very simple one, a la "Beauty and the Beast." And it's precisely where Jackson's version goes awry. From the opening sequence, "King Kong" takes the long way around. It dabbles in excess character development, it exaggerates relationships, and it remains stuck on Skull Island for what can only be described as an eternity. Are the excessive chase and battle sequences necessary to comprehend where man sits in the food chain? Do we need to see a head being sucked off by a giant centipede to understand the dangers of the island? And do we need to see Kong with Darrow playing on frozen ice like the Coca Cola bears to build empathy for the characters? Probably not. Yet, what all these scenes demonstrate is a director who shows very little faith in his own storytelling, compelled to hand hold the audience until an emotion or point has been bludgeoned home. In fact, watching the theatrical release of "King Kong" is like watching a director's cut, reminiscent of those final scenes in "The Return of the King," a series of compulsive sequences that fade to black and linger on and on and on out of sheer exuberance but without necessity.

"Good things never last," Anne suggests. But conversely, in Peter Jackson's version of "King Kong," the good things do last. And last and last and last. Without concern for brevity, Jackson allows his excitement for the subject material to cloud his judgment in the editing of the final product. Over three hours long, the film takes a simple fairy tale and turns it into a clunky, overwrought epic. Although occasionally, it does have its moments, as when Ann performs her vaudeville act for an amused Kong. And seeing an appropriately proportioned King Kong climb to the top of the Empire State Building is exciting. Yet, scenes like those are few and far in between. Because in this instance, it was an overabundance of enthusiasm that killed the story.

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