Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson
Directed by Peter Jackson
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Friends of mine will often ask me how I feel about remakes of movies. They’re actually surprised when I say that I honestly don’t mind when movies are remade. Broadway does remakes all the time. Except they call them revivals and they’re usually greeted with open arms and much love. They expose a whole new generation of theatergoers to the experience of seeing classic musicals performed live on stage. So why not do new versions of classic movies? Either people will go see it or they won’t. And if the writers, producers, actors and crew treat the source material with respect and stay true to the spirit of the original, that will be apparent to those fans of the original and even though they love the original to death, they will embrace the remake for what it is.
What I do object to however are lousy remakes that do a disservice to the original film or remakes of movies that actually don’t need to be remade. The classic 1933 “King Kong” is a perfect example of a movie that was done a disservice when it was remade in 1976. It took Jessica Lange’s career five years to recover from that bomb (she wouldn’t get a decent break until she co-starred with Jack Nicholson in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and poor Jeff Bridges fared even worse. The next five movies in a row he did flopped miserably (including Michael Cimino’s horribly underrated “Heaven’s Gate”) and he really didn’t bounce back until 1982’s “Tron” As for the director of 1976’s “King Kong”…well, you tell me…when was the last time you went to a movie that was directed by John Guillermin?
However, when it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to direct a new version of “King Kong” just about everybody who is a fan of the original sat back and sighed in relief. Like Ray Harryhausen, George Lucas, George Romero, and Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson had proven he was able to employ the medium of film in such a way that he created an entire universe on screen and for the running time of his films, he transported us to a completely other reality and made us believe it existed. And that’s exactly what he does to me with his version of KING KONG.
It’s 1933 and the country is in the grip of The Great Depression. But even though breadlines are plentiful and work is scarce, people still crave their entertainment. Either through vaudeville or the movies. Which is what brings together struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and maverick director Carl Denham (Jack Black) Denham needs an actress quick for his new movie which he’s shooting on location. Ann’s not too sure as Denham is sorta reluctant to specify where they’re going but he promises riches, adventures and a chance for Ann to work with the writer Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody) who she idolizes.
It isn’t until Ann and Jack are aboard the tramp steamer Venture, captained by Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschemann) and crewed by a rag-tag gang of sailor/mercenaries that everybody realizes they’ve been conned by Denham into this expedition to an island that may not exist. Denham insists he has a map. And the map does lead them to an island. And what an island it is. A time-lost island on which a towering stone wall is decorated by skeletons and guarded by a vicious, savage tribe that worships a god they call…Kong. Ann is kidnapped by these savages and offered up as a sacrifice to Kong who is a 25-foot gorilla. He takes Ann into the jungle where he is pursued by Jack, a camera-toting Denham, square–jawed leading man and movie idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and the sailors of the Venture, determined to save her from her fate worse than death. I give them guys credit. What they go through on Skull Island would have Indiana Jones pissing in his pants. Skull Island is a Lost World That Time Forgot of prehistoric creatures that shouldn’t exist. There are Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Brontosaurus, insects that can eat a case of Raid for dinner and have your head for dessert. Leeches the size of Buicks. Vampire bats big enough to bring down fighter jets. And that’s just the beginning.
Our hardy band of adventurers manages to survive the island’s many dangers, rescue Ann and is barely able to subdue and capture Kong. They take him back to New York where Carl Denham puts him on exhibition in a Times Square theatre. You know the rest of the story.
KING KONG is really a superior example of what can be done with such fantastic material when it’s treated with respect for its own reality. Peter Jackson had the good sense to set the movie in period (1933 was the actual year the original “King Kong” was made) since it’s a lot easier to believe that there could be a Skull Island in 1933. The 1930’s was such a rich period of high adventure that when you see hard-bitten guys stalking through a dinosaur infested jungle with cigars in their clenched teeth, flasks of whiskey in the hip pockets and toting Chicago Typewriters, you just buy it with no reservation.
The performances are stellar. I’ve never been much of a Jack Black fan but I really enjoyed him in this movie. He has nowhere near the energy of the original Carl Denham, (the late great Robert Armstrong) but he has a strange look in his eye that I think develops into full-blown madness during the movie’s most frightening scene where Denham, Jack Driscoll and several crewmen are at the bottom of a deep crevice and have to desperately battle for their lives against giant insects. The choice of Jack Black and Adrian Brody as the movie’s leading men is a good one since both of them look like….well, like regular guys. They’re not impossibly handsome or pretty and that goes a long way with me to lending realism to their characters. As Ann Darrow, Naomi Watts has to carry a lot of the movie on her shoulders since she interacts with Kong more than any other character in the movie and she pulls it off superbly. There’s a terrific scene where she goes into her vaudeville act to amuse Kong and amazingly, the big ape enjoys the show. And for me the most spectacular action sequence in the movie is the ultimate giant monster smack down where Kong proves exactly why he’s King when he takes on not one, not two, but three Tyrannosaurus Rexes in a truly epic showdown of colossal proportions.
Chances are most of you reading this have already seen KING KONG so I don’t have to sell you on it. But if by chance you haven’t yet seen it, by all means put this one on your Must See List. KING KONG is a rare animal: a remake that is worthy to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original. It’s totally everything that I love about the movies. Enjoy.