MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Adventure-Action-Fantasy/ Stars: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Evan Parke, Kyle Chandler, John Sumner, Lobo Chan, Craig Hall, Mark Hadlow/ Runtime: 187 minutes
I feel it is safe to say that we as movie lovers have for a long time now been living in a time in film history where it seems that literally nearly every single classic in the world of cinema from the first 100 years of its existence are being remade for modern audiences, and more often than not, the end result is…..not exactly what we might call stellar. This of course brings us to the masterpiece that is King Kong and yet it might astonish you to know this, but back in 1933 when King Kong was released by RKO Studios, it was more of a surprise hit than anything. Yet a hit it was all the same and over time its stature and significance in the world of cinema has only continued to grow and grow. Yet even before this attempt, King Kong had already received the remake treatment back in 1976. A remake that just took the characters, setting, and narrative and brought them into the 70’s which seems simple enough, but audiences didn’t really think so. In fact I have yet to see the ’76 version, but by all accounts it, even with the always delightful Jeff Bridges in the cast, is possibly the worst kind of monkey business around (other than perhaps Congo, but that’s another story.) Yet when it came to the latest, and I seriously hope last, straight-up remake of this timeless tale, Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame makes the wise decision to bring the film back to the 1930’s time period that was originally the present day for the first version of this story. Thus by doing so, not only was he able to provide the narrative with a hint of the significance it had at one time, but also at the same time was able to redesign it as a period film that also possesses a loving element of creative nostalgia. Thus through the work of not only a master class director, a truly game cast, and some visual works that is absolutely out-of-this-world phenomenal, what we are given is a version of a timeless Hollywood legend that also seems to be just as much of a loving tribute to not only what cinema is, but also what it can be and what it can do for us and for the world around us as well.
The plot is as follows: King Kong takes us back to New York City when it was in the midst of the Great Depression and introduces us to a scheming and ambitious Hollywood-type by the name of Carl Denham as he attempts to get his latest film more money from the studio. Suffice it to say however that the heads of the studio aren’t exactly thrilled with his latest project which involves the locating of and filming in and around a mythical island known as Skull Island and decide to pull the plug on the project. Undeterred, Denham plans to keep the movie alive in any way he can be it legal or otherwise. Compounding Denham’s crisis however is that leading ladies aren’t exactly in high supply. Enter a young woman by the name of Ann Darrow. Miss Darrow, we learn, is an extremely talented artist from the vaudeville stage who is, for all intents and purposes, at rock bottom since the theater where she had been employed has shut down and she is now having to literally steal food to survive. It is in the act of doing just that which results in Darrow and Denham crossing paths on the street & being inspired by her, Denham is able to convince her to come aboard the film as his lead actress. It is also around this time that Denham manages to shanghai celebrated playwright, and close friend, Jack Driscoll as his screenwriter. Thus with the extremely reluctant Captain Englehorn at the helm and his crew at their disposal, this intrepid group sets off for Skull Island, despite the crew being led to believe they are actually going to Singapore. Yet it isn’t long thereafter that they arrive at their destination and the crew becomes aware of where they really are, but by then Denham and his crew have taken off for the island. Yet, upon first glance it appears to this group that the island is abandoned. A fact that horrifyingly changes when a small child catches the group’s attention and, while trying to communicate with her, find themselves beset upon by horrific and bloodthirsty individuals that manage to do quite the number on the team and then proceed to kidnap Darrow for the purpose of offering her up to their god. A god that turns out to be a twenty-five foot gorilla by the name of Kong. However, the crew figures out what has occurred, and resolving not to leave Ann behind, endeavors to rescue her only to quickly uncover that the giant monkey is the absolute least of their trouble because it seems that this is an island that is teeming with all kinds of prehistoric life that all also happen to be predisposed to enjoying the taste of human flesh. Now all of a sudden this rescue mission has turned into an epic battle for survival while all the while a blossoming bond between woman and giant ape has begun to form that will have consequences neither could ever truly have foreseen…..
Now I think it is safe to say that had Hollywood told the world that another remake of King Kong was on the way and Peter Jackson was not attached as director, then there would be a lot of trepidation if not righteous fury from movie lovers worldwide. This is because, following the colossal triumph that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the movie going public has learned to put their trust in Peter Jackson. Suffice it to say then that after seeing his interpretation of the King Kong story that this trust is extremely well-deposited. Indeed with this film Jackson is now able to resolutely and with no doubt whatsoever lay claim to the title of master filmmaker. Indeed from the attention he gives to even the littlest of detail, the style he is able to showcase, and the skillful way he is able to get us to emote right when he wants us go it is clear that the man is immensely talented. It should come as no surprise then to learn that Jackson brings his skill and style and utilizes both wonderfully in this film. Indeed although another director at the helm of this movie would most likely accelerated the narrative in order to get the crew on Skull Island, Jackson chooses to take the scenic route instead and incorporates a pleasant, seemingly relaxed build-up that point thus providing audiences with time to get to know this cast of distinct individuals and also give the appropriate time and attention to the blossoming romance between Ann and Jack. That being said however, I would like to point out that their romance is one of the very few missteps that this film takes. This is due to their scenes together coming across at times as a little bit forced and over the top. Yet despite the slight degree of over-the-top that exists within the film’s romance, Jackson nevertheless is able to get the right emotions from the audience at just the right time. Indeed you will applaud, you will chuckle, you will bawl, you will most assuredly be thrilled, and you will be uneasy and squeamish during at least one part of this film. Just thought I should give you fair warning now especially when taken into consideration just how well-made that sequence truly is…
Now the King Kong that was released in 1933 was able to triumph and earn its entry in the history of film Hall of Fame not just for it’s, for the time, spectacularly well-done action scenes, but also because of its story as well. Indeed this was a movie that managed to give purpose and a heart and soul to a vicious 3-ton gorilla to the extent that audiences all over came to care for him and even cry for him by the end of the film. Suffice it to say then that Peter Jackson’s take on Kong would almost assuredly mean significantly less if these pathos had not been present very much like back in ’76. Thankfully that is where the runtime of over 180 minutes works to this film’s advantage. I say that because by using the extended amount of time, Jackson is able to not only stay on track with the original pathos of the first take of this iconic material, but is also able to then heighten them as well. Indeed Jackson’s careful analysis of both bonds as well as love between man/woman and animal are quite sociological in their analysis to the point that the film almost becomes an ode to how animals can have emotions that are on the same level as any of us. Indeed this film isn’t just a story of love between Jack and Anne, but also between Anne and Kong as well. Not really romantic in the latter’s case, but rather more paternal and protective. In other words it’s not a relationship that will inspire crude comments or inappropriate laughter, but rather inspire sobs and weeping from a heartbroken audience as they desperately seek out that last remaining tissue from the box hoping that it’ll be enough to get them through.
Now this is not meant to say movie lover that this version of King Kong is a chick-flick. Oh no it most assuredly is not that in the slightest. After all Peter Jackson is the helmer of the greatest fantasy trilogy of all time. Plus when a movie has a 207 million dollar budget you also hope that they actually made it worthwhile. Suffice it to say therefore that what I previously wrote about how realistic the ’33 King Kong was for its audience, I can also say the same thing about this one. Indeed from an uncanny look back at Manhattan during the 1930’s to a chaotic and exciting dinosaur stampede inside a canyon, King Kong really does have its fair share of fun and thrills in equal measure. Indeed whatever moments that were first developed in 1933, Jackson has managed to kick them up a notch in his version. Indeed there may have only been a duo of dinos fighting with ol’ Kong in the original, but look out because now it’s a trio! Also we finally get a very infamously cut scene involving spiders that is now here in all its squeamish-inducing glory. Key to a lot of the success in these scenes though is the CGI and, as you may have guessed, it is absolutely phenomenal. Yet that still shouldn’t take away from just how skillfully Jackson’s effects team has managed to make each moment of this film look like an absolutely gorgeous work of art. Indeed for the time we spend in New York, this team of wizards has managed to literally take us back to the Depression yet still managed to make New York as stunning and glamorous as ever. As for the other key world of the film aka the jungles of Skull Island I also think that this is handled just as phenomenally well. Indeed the effects people really did an amazing job at creating a world that is a truly gorgeous yet threatening playscape for a wide variety of creatures to roam and wreak havoc upon both our team of heroes and each other in.
Speaking of our team of heroes I feel you should know dear reader that this film’s cast is absolutely spot-on right on down the line to the smallest roles. Indeed this starts with our leading lady, and as Ann Darrow, Naomi Watts gives a performance that is both magical and quite emotional especially when it comes to her relationship with Jack and the bond she forms with Kong. Plus it almost certainly doesn’t hurt that Watts has the look and vibe of a movie star from that era which I am almost certain is not a coincidence. Now even though quite a few people had some doubt when it came to Jack Black coming on board this film, I am glad to tell you that he is exactly what this iconic character needed in order to be brought to life. Indeed Black manages to once again utilize his hallmark maniacal energy yet instead of using it in the name of comedy, Black channels it through the character of Denham’s showmanship, his passion for the world of film, and his strong desire to give his audience a spectacle they have never seen before even if it means sacrificing his moral code. Indeed it may seem a little Orson Welles at times, but Black does a fantastic job. Now I will admit I don’t know a lot of people who are fans of Adrien Brody and his work, but there are a few films of his I have enjoyed. Suffice it to say that he manages to do some wonderful work here as Jack and he and Watts do have a delightful, if slightly awkward, chemistry in their scenes together. Then there is Andy Serkis and I just have to say that this is an actor who is nowhere near as appreciated as he deserves to be. Indeed I get that since a lot of his more iconic roles such as Gollum from LOTR, Caesar from the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, and his work in these are usually glossed over since there is a lot of equally as impressive CGI involved, but it is still the man under all of that and in this he is incredible as the titular monkey. In fact I think the most remarkable thing about this performance is how Serkis, despite being completely convincing both in mannerisms and vocals as a gorilla on steroids, still finds a way to bring an astonishing degree of humanity to the role. Indeed I cannot recall the last time an animal protagonist in a live action film, save for in perhaps 2016’s The Jungle Book or Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, managed to touch audiences in the way that Kong in this manages to and Serkis deserves all the praise in the world for his work in bringing this iconic character to life for a whole new generation of film goers. Yet even the other people involved from Colin Hanks as Denham’s more morally-inclined assistant, Jamie Bell as a younger and more impressionable member of the ship’s crew, Kyle Chandler who really brings a bravado and gusto to his role of the star of the film Denham is making, and Thomas Kretschmann as the captain of the ship who continually finds himself exasperated by Denham and his shenanigans all manage to do wonderful work in ensuring that this iconic tale is brought back to life and in a way that is both engaging and respectful towards the audience.
All in all King Kong is an absolutely entertaining in every way film that is also a true ode to the power of the magic of cinema that films in the action genre with a dash of fantasy, even those which function as remakes or reimaginings of timeless classics, can truly come up with when those films are given a potently emotional core to them. Indeed by bringing back the rather one-note narrative from the 1933 masterpiece and then fleshing it out so we really get to know the characters involved at the heart of this epic tale and then also expanding the bond of Ann with Kong so that she goes from kidnap victim to friend and all the way to confidant who is able to see there’s more to the giant hairy behemoth than most can see or are even willing to, I would even go so far as to say that Jackson’s version is most likely the most fulfilling and complete. Yet even though it runs over 3 hours in length, it is that length that results in an intriguing movie that has its own set of benefits to it. Indeed I know it might be shocking to say, but I would be curious as to see what he could pull off if tasked with dusting off another cinematic world like say The Wizard of Oz. Yet even though I know there are a lot of people who would see such a film as sacrilegious, I would just like to point out that when made with love, care, knowledge, and appreciation for what came before, a remake can actually be a wonderful thing. In fact if it is made with the vision that only a master filmmaker can bring, I would say that a remake can even become quite the beautiful work of art. Trust me then when I say that this film is a fine example of such beauty even when it is such beauty that can kill a beast…..On a scale of 1-5 I give King Kong “05” a solid 4 out of 5.