The 1976 version of King Kong actually got a belated and ridiculed sequel, King Kong Lives (1986), but this is a section-by-section review of the second remake from 2005. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!
Note: this review is based on the DVD edit of the film, which is around 12 minutes longer than the cinema version.
New York City: Director Carl Denham is about to be shut down by his bosses, so hires an actress, kidnaps his writer and sets sail for a far-off location…
* This film essentially follows the same story as the 1933 original, and is even done as a period film. From the Art Deco credit sequence through the opening montage of Hooverville and Manhattan, the sense of time and place is established very well. In fact, the film’s single biggest strength might be the stunning recreation of 1930s New York. It was filmed on a backlot in New Zealand, but the physical production design and the CGI set extensions are mind-blowing. It’s a totally immersive world. There are rich, bold colours – yellowy yellows, bluey blues – and all the period clichés you could ask for. Depression, prohibition, skyscraper construction… Taxis, pedestrians, Broadway…
* We first see Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) on stage in a failing vaudeville show. This is a nice example of what this adaption is doing compared with 1933. In the original movie, we were just told Ann was an actress; now, we see her in action. This film dramatises its story much better.
* James Newton Howard’s score is terrific throughout, but I mention it here because I love the punchy and jaunty music in this opening New York sequence.
* Meanwhile, Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing it just the right side of comical) is under pressure from his studio execs, who want to cut his funding (another good example of dramatising events rather than just saying things are so). The 1933 Denham felt like a street hustler, whereas this one is clearly informed by Orson Welles: he’s ruthless and arrogant, but undeniably likeable too. (“Goddamn it, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!”) Preston, Denham’s put-upon assistant, is played by Colin Hanks.
* In need of an actress at short notice, Denham mentions people he could ask. They’re all real-life actresses of the 1930s: Jean Harlow (1911-1937), Myrna Loy (1905-1993), Clara Bow (1905-1965), Mae West (1893-1980) and ‘Fay’ – ie, Fay Wray (1907-2004). The gag here is that Fay can’t do Denham’s movie because she’s working for ‘Cooper’ over at RKO – in other words, filming the original King Kong with Merian C Cooper! (In additional self-referentialism, Jean Harlow was considered for the role of Ann Darrow in 1933.)
* It’s noticeable how scenes and even dialogue (“No funny business!”) are being specifically repeated from the original now. The 1933 Kong is Peter Jackson’s favourite movie, and this is pretty much a love letter to it.
* One big change from 1933, however, is that the character of Jack Driscoll has been repurposed. No longer the first officer on a merchant ship, he’s now Denham’s writer. Jack (Adrian Brody) only delivers 15 pages of his script, though, so Denham tricks him into staying on the Venture until after it’s left the dock. Jack then spends *months* sailing to and from an island in the Indian Ocean rather than a couple of minutes swimming ashore.
On board the Venture: Denham has paid for a ship to take him, his actors and his crew to a mysterious island…
* The captain of the Venture has the same name as in 1933 – Englehorn (played by Thomas Kretschmann) – but is now German and has many more featured crewmen. Jamie Bell plays Jimmy, a young boy who reads Heart of Darkness just in case you’re not getting the subtext; Andy Serkis plays the cook, Lumpy; Evan Parke plays first mate Hayes; and Lobo Chan plays a janitor called Choy. These characters are being introduced now so we’ll care when they get killed later on.
* Denham also has new characters with him. In 1933, he was a one-man film crew, but here he has a cameraman called Herb (John Sumner), a sound recordist called Mike (Craig Hall), general dogsbody Preston and an up-his-own-arse actor called Bruce Baxter (John Chandler). There’s a lovely gag where Bruce finds that Jimmy has defaced some of his movie posters, but then comes to like how he looks with a moustache drawn on his face.
* En route to the island, we see Ann and Bruce film a scene for Denham’s movie. As a bit of postmodern tomfoolery, the cheesy dialogue has been lifted from a scene in the 1933 Kong.
* Ann and Jack’s romance begins around this point, and it’s quite sweet. In fact, the whole segment rattles along very enjoyably. There’s lots of fun, especially with Denham driving the story. But the tone turns darker as the Venture sails off the shipping lanes and then stumbles across Skull Island. It’s very spooky stuff – set at night, unlike the previous two films, with lots of fog and moody music.
Skull Island: Denham and his team sneak ashore to film some footage, but encounter natives who kidnap Ann and deliver her to a giant gorilla living in the interior of the island…
* Well, clearly more thought has gone into this native culture than in either 1933 or 1976. These people have a vaguely Cambodian or Polynesian feel to their costumes, and there are skulls and skeletons dotted around the ancient ruins they live in. Initially it seems Skull Island is uninhabited, but then we get some trippy editing and staccato frame jumps. This heralds an attack from the threatening locals. It’s more like a horror movie than anything else: the fun and zip has gone. Then when Ann screams after seeing Mike killed, Kong enters the story – we hear his enormous roar in the 57th minute.
* One thing we don’t get in this version is a scene of the natives sacrificing one of their own before they spot Ann. But once Ann is offered up to Kong, we move into action-movie territory as the men set off to rescue her. (As in the previous films, the island natives oddly vanish from the story at this point. Where do they go?!)
* Kong appears for the first time at the 67-minute mark. After the stop-motion puppet of 1933 and the man-in-a-suit of 1976, this film has a 100-per-cent CG Kong. The character’s performance is driven by actor Andy Serkis using motion-capture technology and it’s a superbly impressive piece of work. He fits into the surroundings very well indeed – and his face carries genuine emotion and empathy.
* We’re into a long section now, which cuts between the men encountering dinosaurs, giant insects and sea monsters, and Ann’s Stockholm-syndrome subplot with Kong. It drags, to be frank: the characters are on Skull Island for nearly half the film and it’s largely dialogue-free. The Ann/Kong scenes seem to never end. But there is also fun to be had, especially in the way Denham keeps shooting his movie even when colleagues are being killed before his lens. The action is generally good too, if a bit cartoony at times (as well as Kong and the monsters, the island is often computer-generated).
* Kong’s fight with a T-Rex contains allusions to the equivalent scene from 1933, while the famous ‘giant insects’ sequence that was cut from the original has been restaged here.
* When Denham loses his film footage, he decides to transport Kong back to New York instead. It takes this gang a lot longer than their 1930s counterparts to subdue the beast!
New York City (again): Carl Denham presents his Broadway show ‘Kong – Eighth Wonder of the World’. But his star attraction breaks free and goes on the rampage…
* After the same kind of audacious jump-cut as in 1933, we’re back in the glorious New York City we saw at the start of the film.
* A change from the original movie sees Ann not involved with Denham’s stage show – instead she’s got a lowly job in a chorus line. Time has passed and things have moved on: Denham’s bosses return from the start of the film, but are now much more kind to him, while Jack and Ann are estranged. It’s a more downbeat section than in 1933, which basically had everyone okay with kidnapping a wild animal for entertainment.
* At the theatre, Denham’s show features music and costumes from the 1933 film: nice touches. Kong then goes crazy because it *isn’t* Ann on stage with him (Denham has hired a stand-in), which is lovely twist on expectation.
* As Kong tears through the city, we get lots of action. There’s no big stunt involving a train (as in 1933 and 1976), but Kong does trash a tram. He calms down once Ann appears on the scene – and there’s then a very silly sequence where the two of them go ice-skating! (Firstly, where has everyone else gone in this moment? Secondly, would a 25-foot-tall gorilla not break the ice on a small lake?) The timing of this section is also difficult to fathom. We go from an evening Broadway show to dawn the next day, but nowhere near enough story seems to happen to justify that time stretch.
* Once Kong has climbed the Empire State Building, the action sequence featuring biplanes is very enjoyable indeed. And, in keeping with this version’s emotional rigour, it’s actually a moving moment when Kong is killed and falls to the ground.
* The 96-year-old Fay Wray was asked to cameo as a bystander who utters the line, “It was beauty killed the beast.” She initially said no, then hinted she might be up for it. But she died on 8 August 2004, a month before filming began.
Review: Unlike a lot of recent blockbusters, this uses CGI in skilful and stylish ways – to create believable creatures and environments that wouldn’t otherwise be filmable. The title character might be the focus, and he is a marvellous creation, but it’s the New York scenes that really wow. They’re so believable you wonder whether time-travel was involved. Super stuff. The script also has a light touch and tells its story briskly and with economy… well, at least until the story gets bogged down with repetitive action on Skull Island. Things really drag at that point, which is a shame. The King Kong template has a slender, simple plot, but this version is *twice as long* as the original. Peter Jackson clearly has an issue with brevity. His Middle Earth movies are enjoyable, but all feature superfluous encounters with elves or talking trees or skin-changers. Here, the terrific work of the film’s first half is nearly scuttled by self-indulgence on Skull Island. But there’s still more than enough good stuff to see us through.
Eight bars of chocolate out of 10