Though I haven't seen the original 1933 King Kong since I was a kid - and even so, I'm not sure if I sat through the whole thing - after watching Peter Jackson's epic 2005 remake, I gained a belated respect for the boldness of Ernest B. Schoedsack's and Merian C. Cooper's vision: at a time when the "talkies" were still new and most directors were basically making filmed stageplays, these two not only delivered a grand adventure with then-cutting edge special effects, they also gave us a story (Cooper cowrote the script with prolific author Edgar Wallace, who died during production) unmatched in its perverse novelty: A giant ape falls in love with a beautiful woman! The spectacle captured Depression-era America's imagination and became a huge box office success.
Updating this classic has been a labor of love many years in the making for Peter Jackson. A fan of the 1933 film as a child, his first stab at a Kong remake fell apart nearly a decade ago. But after the success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the studios gave Jackson carte blanche to make anything he wanted. Thus his dream of bringing King Kong back to life is now our reality.
What I like about this Kong is what I liked about the Lord of the Rings movies: awesome special effects; inspired, if offbeat, casting; exciting action sequences; a genuine sense of humanity. But as with the Rings trilogy, Kong never engaged me emotionally. For me the movie is just too big, too busy, and - most notably - too damn long. Even Jackson has joked that he took three hours to tell the same story that Schoedsack and Cooper told in 100 minutes. Since Jackson's stated goal was to simply enhance the original story with the slickest CGI money can buy in order to appeal to contemporary audiences, I wonder if he really felt he needed an extra 80 minutes to do it.
The Rings films earned their three-hour lengths, as J.R.R. Tolkien's books gave Jackson so much ground to cover. King Kong's source material, in comparison, is ultra-lean: Movie director discovers struggling actress, takes her to uncharted island to make an adventure picture, she is kidnapped by natives and is offered to a big ape who falls in love with her, the ape is captured and taken to New York, he goes nuts, climbs the Empire State Building, airplanes shoot him down, "It was beauty killed the beast", The End. (I hope I haven't spoiled it for any of you, but I think everybody's familiar with the monkey on top of the skyscraper.)
Jackson's film is never really boring, but it is exhausting. From the start, every scene seems to go on for twice as long as it should. It's self-indulgent. And whether this is because Jackson's gotten used to making epic-length features (and because studios will let him get away with same) or because he loved this story so much that he couldn't tear himself away from it, either way he needed somebody to tap him on the shoulder and say, "Cut back, Peter, cut back." Especially with the endless fight scenes involving scary dinosaurs and squirm-inducing giant insects on Skull Island. Jackson ignores a huge chunk of story - that is, how the humans manage to capture Kong, get him on a boat and make their way back to New York - and yet finds the time to establish a Fellowship of the Ring-like collection of characters who explore the island, fight valiantly and often die, only to disappear by the third act. (The segue from Skull Island to Manhattan is abrupt and awkward.)
I still liked this movie, but only to a degree. James Newton Howard's score is bland (God only knows why Jackson fired his first composer, Howard Shore, who scored the Rings films), but the production values are flawless and the cast - especially Naomi Watts - is fine. Credit is due once again to "digital actor" Andy Serkis, who truly brings Kong to life and makes the ape the most fascinating and subtle character in the film, as he did with his interpretation of Gollum in the Rings series. Peter Jackson owes this man his life.
Not that Jackson hasn't held up his end of the deal: perhaps because Gollum and Kong are both 100% digital, he's invested the bulk of his creative energies into making them so human that they wind up upstaging their flesh-and-blood costars. Which makes the long wait for Kong's appearance in this film all the more exasperating. If The Lovely Bones is in fact Jackson's next film, let's hope he keeps it under two hours and fires all his animators.