Universal // 2005 // 188 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // April 17th, 2006
"It wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast." -- Carl Denham
It's not normal practice to use the closing line as the opener to a review, but that famous epitaph is hardly a secret.
It belongs to a little picture that made a big splash in 1933. After the then-biggest opening weekend ever, King Kong made $1.761 million on a $670,000 investment in its initial release and kept making money for RKO in re-release through the 1950s, according to IMDb. Its unique tragic hero, brought to life through stop-motion photography, meets his end in a thrilling battle with a squadron of airplanes as he hangs from the top of the Empire State Building.
King Kong went on to become a part of global pop culture, heading to Japan to tangle with Godzilla and starring in his own Saturday morning cartoon, while Fay Wray, the actress who played the girl he loved, became associated with her screams and longed for someone to invent the quirky indie flick so she could escape typecasting.
In 2005, the movie was reimagined on a larger scale. With a production budget of $207 million, it took in a disappointing $547 million or so worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. The new version of King Kong, with its ape created through computer magic, also closed on Carl Denham's eulogy for an ape, although Denham here was played by computer-generated actor Jack Black. Just kidding.
Sadly, there was a real death associated with King Kong, even before it hit the screens. Best-selling British novelist Edgar Wallace, the founding father of the thriller genre and author of 175 novels, was working on an original screenplay for King Kong at the time of his death in 1932. From the looks of things, Wallace may have been responsible for the blockbuster action pic as well.
There might be a crooner singing "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" as this 2005 version of King Kong opens, but the animals at the zoo are living better than the unemployed folks depicted in bread lines and shantytowns. Even vaudeville wasn't cheering up these down-on-their-luck New Yorkers, mainly because they couldn't afford tickets as the Depression took its toll in 1933.
Inside one of those vaudeville houses, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, The Ring) is commiserating with colleagues about the lack of an audience and late paychecks. Soon, she and her fellow performers will be out on the street. Our plucky heroine has her eye on a role in a play by Jack Driscoll, whose writing she admires. Ann goes for a tryout, but the director sends her to another theater instead. Judging by the tone of his voice, you might think he's sending her to a burlesque joint to audition. While you'd think that and you'd be right, it doesn't even occur to sweet, innocent Ann.
Meanwhile, Carl Denham (Jack Black, School of Rock) has more on his mind than his latest picture, which is about to be cut up and sold as stock footage. The moviemaker has found a map showing the whereabouts of Skull Island and yearns to film an expedition of the uncharted territory. His studio bosses don't plan to fund it, but Carl decides that if he can get everyone on the ship and head out that night, it won't matter. Naturally, his leading lady balks, so he has to find a replacement immediately, preferably one the same size so he won't have to buy new costumes. Fortunately, he's walking by the burlesque house just as Ann sees that her innocence has led her blocks out of her way.
"You wouldn't happen to be a size four, by any chance?" Carl asks our heroine. Ann, finally wising up, is suspicious of Denham at first, but when she hears that Driscoll has written Carl's shooting script, Ann is ready to climb aboard. Her arrival is fortuitous, since every man she meets is immediately smitten by her, mainly because they're all awkward and she's the first beauty they've met in a while. To her, though, if they're not Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, The Pianist), they might as well be big, hairy apes.
Soon, we're headed for Skull Island, even though Carl wants the superstitious crew to think they're heading for Singapore. They're not happy when they find out and Carl, a hair more worldly than Ann, senses the obvious immediately.
"Gentlemen, please, we're not looking for trouble," Carl says.
"No. You're looking for something else," a crew member answers.
"Yes, we are. We're going to find Skull Island -- find it, film it, and show it to the world. For twenty-five cents, you get to see the last blank space on the map," Carl says, the glint of a dream shining in his eyes.
Little does he know that a nightmare awaits on Skull Island...
As you'd imagine with a movie that tops three hours, this King Kong has a leisurely pace in the first and last hours, moving at average summer popcorn movie speed only in the middle section on Skull Island. While the movie is slower than you'd expect, it brings the rich tapestry of 1933 New York to life, making you feel like you're a part of a city that's no longer and may never have been. The New York scenes bring with them a wistful quality that emphasizes the love triangle aspect of King Kong. These qualities did slow down the last part of the movie, making it less exciting than it could have been. How could Kong stop for a sweet romantic romp with Ann through Central Park while the military was chasing him? Still, if you're open to experiencing human emotions through the eyes of a 25-foot-tall ape, you'll enjoy this King Kong.
As for action, we get about 48 minutes into this King Kong before we get a glimpse of Skull Island, and that first view is shrouded in fog. The first death comes just before the one-hour mark. About ten minutes later, we meet Kong for the first time, although we get a preview when Driscoll notices a sketch on Carl's map and warns him to consider the smudges more carefully. The slower pace, along with several foreboding sequences involving the first mention of Skull Island and the first sight of actual skulls on said island, helps make the action more powerful when it does come, even though you don't see the actual blows in attacks.
The extra attention given to Ann Darrow's acting ambitions and Carl Denham's manic rush to get his movie started give a touch of theatricality to this King Kong. Even when Kong returns to New York, scenes with Kyle Chandler putting on a show of capturing Kong in a stage show and Naomi Watts taking on a Kong-free acting role keep the Broadway beat pulsing through our minds. With his emphasis on this milieu, director Peter Jackson sometimes seems to mock his own lifelong determination to remake this classic film as he shows his affection for movie and theater lore, not just giant apes. These touches give the movie itself a theatrical unreality that I enjoyed, even though it wreaked havoc with my suspension of disbelief.
Jack Black portrays Carl Denham with a remarkable, if not admirable, singlemindedness. When tragedy strikes, his line of "We'll finish it -- and donate the profits to his wife and kids" as he tries to push the survivors to carry on becomes a unique comic line. His scamming is transparent, as is his goal: To get the movie made, at all costs. As his companions survey the human casualties after a nasty battle, Black's Denham eyes his damaged camera with the emotions the others show only for humans. His charming rogue isn't always sympathetic, but Black makes the over-the-top character of Denham believable.
Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow may be naïve, but she's a trouper. At one point, the vaudevillian tries to charm Kong with juggling and a little soft shoe, using a huge stick for a cane. Often, she stands up to the original 800-pound gorilla like he's just another overzealous admirer. She's a good screamer, with expressions of sheer terror to match. It's her reactions, not the prehistoric CGI fauna, that make Ann's run through the jungle frightening. I wasn't sure quite what to make of her sympathetic attitude toward Kong; at times, it seems like she might prefer the ape to Driscoll. These exaggerated moments provide unintentional humor, but Watts generally is effective in developing the metaphor of the romantic triangle.
Adrien Brody has the most thankless role, as romantic rival to the giant CGI ape. Since the ape has the talented human face of Andy Serkis behind his simian features, Brody had to work hard to make his Jack Driscoll the more human of Ann's would-be lovers. Brody's Driscoll stands out, though, as the character who shows growth, being pulled out of his sheltered writer's life by his affection for Ann and the dangers she faces.
This movie's King Kong isn't a stop-motion puppet (though that sort of animation still proved its worth in last year's Wallace and Gromit feature), but a combination of the human emotions of Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) and CGI animation. From his first appearance, he appears as a character with both heart and an unwieldy power to destroy. When he first sees Ann, Kong strokes her hair. While it's gentle for him, the audience realizes he could crush her skull even as he's being gentle. This Kong has a touch of the wistful romantic as he watches a beautiful sunset with his best girl, who just taught him the word "beautiful." Despite the improvement in effects since Kong's last movie appearance, Kong's rescue of Ann in the jungle, fighting prehistoric reptiles, looks too much like King Kong vs. Godzilla, despite all the newfangled technology.
I did notice one scene on Skull Island that appeared washed out, but otherwise, the look of King Kong is stellar. Many scenes are shrouded in fog on purpose, but when they aren't, the digital work that went into the movie is seamless. You might not realize that much of New York City, not just Skull Island, is made up of computer effects and miniatures. The soundtrack's romantic classical flourishes and ambient noise come across excellently on the soundtrack as well.
A couple of scenes on Skull Island, such as those with giant leeches, can be icky, so be forewarned.
Since there's a jungle of extra material to map out here, I went into each of the major bonus features in detail:
Post Production Diaries
"It's a way of showing people what it takes to make a film in real time." -- Peter Jackson
From the start of filming on King Kong through the release of the picture, video diaries keeping track of the production process were posted at www.kongisking.net. The diaries from filming were released as a separate two-disc set; the ones from the post-production process (155 minutes worth) are included here.
Want to see Andy Serkis monkeying around in the studio to generate motion for the CGI King Kong, a process that he says "will become part of an actor's toolkit" in the future? Want to watch the set builders painstakingly create not only the miniature sets, but the backstories of their tiny town and island? Want a tour of the WETA Digital effects house? You'll find it here.
Director Peter Jackson hosts many of the segments, but the people behind the effects take center stage so that we can see what they do. There's a lot of detail here about aspects like color correction and foley effects. While some of it can be arcane, the diary format makes these things interesting to the average moviegoer.
Jackson doesn't do a standard commentary on this DVD, but he does talk less formally in the diaries about his decisions, mostly answering questions submitted to the Web site. For example, he talks about his admiration for the "last age of exploration" as a motivation for redoing Kong as a period piece.
Movie buffs will particularly like a scene where Jackson shows the pterodactyl and the skeleton of the original Kong used in stop-motion photography on the original 1933 King Kong.
You may also wonder why such a big film was put together on a tighter-than-normal schedule, but that's never explained.
The diaries are a vast improvement over most "making of" featurettes and commentaries. Still, it seems that Web diaries might be a luxury that only someone in Jackson's unique position could enjoy. The New Zealand director has spent the last few years working on big-budget, high-interest films whose stories and plot twists were already known. Thus, his diaries had a built-in audience and didn't run the risk that a Web diary might leak the ending and create an "Oh, by the way, the ape lives and goes off with Ann" debacle.
I'll be watching the Web for future online production diaries from Peter Jackson.
Skull Island: A Natural History
"Since mankind first evolved to walk upright and leave his simian cousins behind, he has overcome innumerable perils exploring the four corners of the Earth. By 1933, only a few blank spots remained -- and one for good reason."
The narrator is talking there about Skull Island, the prehistoric spot in the Indian Ocean where King Kong was discovered. He's talking about it as if it were a real place.
In the post-production diaries, people working on miniature sets and other elements of King Kong talked about the backstory they had to keep in mind when creating believable fakery. Here, that backstory is presented in "mockumentary" format, with theories about the existence of the prehistoric beasts, details from further expeditions, and the eventual destruction of the island. Real examples of supposedly lost and unknown creatures such as the komodo dragon and, back in 1902, the mountain gorilla are weaved in to help build the case for a prehistoric spot. This story apparently was meant to get the King Kong team into the right mood and it's provided here in hopes that it will have the same effect on you.
The production people shown seem totally immersed in this backstory as they discuss it on camera. I found it fascinating to watch these creative people enter the world of King Kong, but wanted to learn more about the real surprise discoveries.
Fans might also watch this one to start speculating about potential sequel plots for a Return to Skull Island or Destruction of Skull Island movie.
"Kong's New York: 1933"
"We're setting King Kong in the 1930s, but we're making it a very realistic 1930s." -- Peter Jackson
Except for that giant ape wandering around, Jackson's version of 1933 New York does appear to have verisimilitude. This featurette provides a quick refresher course about the events and scenes of 1933, focusing on a few areas represented in the 2005 movie: The Great Depression, vaudeville, New York Harbor, street life, the skyscraper boom, and prohibition.
If you're not up on your history, this one will provide the facts you need to notice certain details. For example, you'd have to know about prohibition (which ended while the movie team was on Skull Island) to know why Carl Denham opens up a case marked "lemonade" which turns out to be something stronger, or why liquor ads appear in the New York of the last reels but not earlier in the picture. Even if you were sharp in history class, you may find something new here. While I knew the basics of prohibition and the Depression from history class and I've learned at least a little bit about vaudeville through enjoying classic movie and radio comedians, the story of the race to build the world's tallest building was new to me.
The period footage used in this half-hour segment makes it interesting viewing, whether you've got the background down or not.
The Volkswagen Toureg and King Kong
It's not a must-see by any means, but this brief bit goes into the "making of" explanations for the tie-in car commercial. While it's not saying much, it's one of the best car commercials I've seen in a long while.
The modern special effects don't always add to this remake, as I mentioned earlier when describing Kong's rescue of Ann Darrow on Skull Island. Most seriously, the final confrontation atop the Empire State Building doesn't seem as thrilling as in the 1933 original. Since Peter Jackson mentioned it as a favorite scene at one point in the diaries, this is especially disappointing.
While the high-tech razzle-dazzle of CGI effects didn't make this expensive feature the best thrill ride ever, director Peter Jackson didn't rely on the computers to do his job for him. The technical stuntwork is present in every scene, but Jackson wisely put the emphasis on historical detail and character here. A strong cast in parts gigantic, big, and small helped create the human empathy that ultimately makes a fantastic film work.
Not guilty. Peter Jackson stayed close to the classic King Kong in many ways, but I enjoyed his nostalgic take on the story as the world's most unusual period romance. Still, if you somehow aren't familiar with the 1933 King Kong, check it out before you delve into Jackson's version.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 188 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Special Introduction by Peter Jackson
* Post-Production Diaries
* "Skull Island: A Natural History"
* "Kong's New York: 1933"
* "The Volkswagen Toureg & King Kong"
* Wikipedia on Edgar Wallace
* Kong is King