It's a big, exciting, action-packed adventure epic that audiences loved. At the screenings Savant attended it was given spontaneous bursts of applause. But because King Kong's box office receipts didn't top 500 million it was considered a financial disappointment. What's wrong with this picture?
Modern remakes are not created equal. The majority are undertaken simply because a "known quantity" property like Cheaper by the Dozen or Flight of the Phoenix doesn't require the marketers to work from scratch to create a public consciousness for the new film. Also, a remake can be easily managed by a corporate committee -- the appeal of the original can be studied, and the objectives of the remake set in stone to remind 'creative' filmmakers to go only in the pre-approved direction.
Last December's King Kong is the good kind of remake. The overwhelming success of the Lord of the Rings cycle allowed New Zealand director Peter Jackson to do his dream project, a remake of his favorite picture. Kong had already been butchered once in a 1976 Dino de Laurentiis effort made successful by a big ad campaign. Fans of the original 1933 film's groundbreaking special effects liked Rick Baker and Carlo Rambaldi's very good ape costume but were unimpressed with the rest of the film's pedestrian effects work. Particularly aggravating was de Laurentiis' public assertion that his Kong was a giant robot, when the terrible-looking statue built for the film was seen only in a few seconds' worth of quick cuts. It really looked as if De Laurentiis' publicity managers 'arranged' for a Special Oscar for special effects the same way that publicists 'arrange' favorable reviews: One review from a major L.A.- based critic read as if he'd either not seen the remake or had fallen asleep while watching: He praised the battle between Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex ... when there is no such scene in the movie.
With his WETA special effects facility running strong from 6 years' work on the Rings pictures, Jackson was primed and ready to do his own take on the Kong legend. The original movie's fame is such that it has attained the status of cultural legend, making it a tough nut to crack. One doesn't remake Casablanca or Gone with the Wind and not expect criticism. Nobody doubted that Kong was a field-day opportunity for Jackson's world-class special effects wizardry. But did the world really need a Kong remake? Were audiences thirsting for an old-fashioned adventure set in 1933?
King Kong was the Great Simian Hope at theaters last Christmas, after a year of dismal comedies and 'meaningful' quality films angling for Oscar wins. Kong was predicted to be a blockbuster and received mostly excellent reviews. It did extremely well but didn't break box office records. Although word of mouth was mostly positive, it was obvious that a chunk of the movie going demographic wasn't buying, and it wasn't because they were anti-remake purists. Some interviewees said they just weren't interested in a movie about a giant ape, plain and simple. Kong was old news, a monster movie with a story everyone already knew by heart. In 1998 a Godzilla remake was touted as the next Titanic; I remember one friend who arranged a New York vacation to be there for its premiere. Then audiences discovered that Godzilla was just an old-fashioned giant movie monster, and that the movie had little else going for it.
But the audiences Savant saw King Kong with loved it. At an early screening and weeks later at The Grove, we were treated to an epic of the kind that disappeared with hard-ticket Road Show engagements. The new Kong's first goal was to recreate the original's spirit of adventure. Its beautiful period reconstruction of New York evokes a nostalgia for old movies not seen since 1973's The Sting. And although some of its narrative choices are shaky, the new film remains true to the spirit of the original. Jackson's Kong is an intelligent rethinking of Merian C. Cooper's movie that doesn't aim to replace the original in our affections.
I'll not linger on descriptions of the film's effects because that aspect is the one easiest to appreciate: They're sensational. Most of the movie is one big effect. Kong is almost 100% a CGI creation melding the work of an actor (Andy Serkis) with 3-D graphic modeling and animation. Kong is the key, and he's practically flawless. He moves like the giant beast he is, and his expressive features 'emote' like the gorillas in the zoo -- simian psychology with definite personality quirks - jealousy, resentment, curiosity, amusement. The original Kong's personality was communicated through animation 'mime' helped by a sympathetic music score - neither the model's face nor the giant mock-up face was capable of subtle expression. Rick Baker's partly animatronic mask for the '76 version worked up some impressive facial expressions, allowing the Kong character to roar or shed tears. Serkis' Kong constantly rewards us with a fully developed character. This monster has the ferocity of the original and a genuine affection for his prized possession Ann Darrow. In the original, Kong battles to regain his princess but much of his passion is communicated in the script's theme of Beauty and the Beast. In Jackson's film, we see Kong lose his heart completely. Possession of Ann is the only thing on his mind, every waking moment.
Jackson's fine sense of spectacle adapts well to Kong. New York circa 1933 is breathtaking even without a giant ape on the loose. Only parts of Skull Island evoke the original's misty dawn-of-time feel and substitutes a forested Tom Sawyer's Island / Adventureland playground of the imagination, packed with all manner of voracious dinosaurs and icky prehistoric insects, spiders and leeches. It's natural for the film to upstage 1993's Jurassic Park, as Skull Island is a stage for Jackson and his writers to work out everything fun and crazy they could think of. Strict realism or plausibility isn't the first or even the second concern, as what is Fun and exciting comes first. Yes, the sauropod stampede is as believable as a Tex Avery cartoon, and the use of machine guns to shoot bugs off people is pure slapstick nonsense.
Jackson's Kong approaches its unlikely set-pieces with the attitude of a Buster Keaton comedy or a Jackie Chan action fantasy: If one T-Rex is a problem, how about two, or three? What if Kong has to fend them off all at once, while trying to protect Ann Darrow? Before we can say King Size Canary Kong is punching out the lizards with his feet and his fists, and tossing Ann around the way a Chinese knife artist might juggle his daggers. The sequence builds to complex new levels of jeopardy like a good Keaton gag. Just when we think that all the pesky T-Rexes have toppled to their doom, we're confronted with a mid-air stunt-dino gag out of a Jackie Chan movie that's the height of escapist exhilaration.
I've read dissenting opinions citing how ridiculous this all is and I heartily agree. Kong shouldn't be able to vault 50 yards at a hop without rearranging half the landscape or breaking his own bones. Neither could anyone pole-vault across a raging sea with a 75-foot pole, and Ann Darrow could not possibly withstand such shaking, crushing G-forces and instant acceleration without snapping like a twig or getting her brain knocked loose. The movie plays by different rules than modern movies about slo-mo kickboxers and 'ultimate battles between good and evil.' Kong is an adventure fantasy like the equally absurd Gunga Din or Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the interests of realism, should they have considered making Kong a drug addict, or having him confused over his sexual identity?
Obviously, the tone is the thing and there isn't going to be a consensus among viewers who reject aspects of the picture wholesale. Savant can only relate what parts of the picture worked for him, and why. I liked the show-business opening as it established Ann Darrow's character and the state of a world different from our own. Naomi Watts is sensational, perhaps the best actor yet who has had to do so much work opposite a "leading man" added in post production. She was my choice for best actress this year.
Jack Black isn't perfect but he isn't bad either, if one can accept the fact that he's not meant to be like Robert Armstrong's original Carl Denham. Black is an exploitation filmmaker and a con-man, not a bona-fide naturalist or an adventurer. Armstrong was the kind of confident individual who could smile as he said, "Yeah, I tricked forty people into going to a dangerous place and got half of them killed to further my self-interest. What's your problem?" Jack Black is meant to represent America (I believe, anyway) from the point of view of a New Zealander. Black's Denham is an arrogant, small-minded, manipulating sleazeball. His only redeeming qualities are his belief in his grandiose schemes, and his sense of humor. He's a dangerous, sweaty man desperate to succeed at any cost. The only thing wrong with his character arc is that this Denham wouldn't bother to euolgize the dead ape; he'd be too busy arranging blame for his debacle to fall somewhere else. At one point on the island Denham whispers to himself, "I'm sorry," as if the sentiment was something he'd never felt before.
Jack Black makes an interesting comparison with Charles Grodin of the '76 Kong, where eco-messaging turns the expedition into a greedy oil venture for a company called Petrox. If the first film is Mythi-Kong, and de Laurentiis' is Eco-Kong, is this new film is Pax Americana-Kong? With its views of injustice in Depression-era New York, perhaps potential audiences subconsciously read the new show as anti-American.
I liked the film's use of period music. The good final score tends to dwindle in comparison with the majesty of Max Steiner's epochal original music, which makes the big Broadway premiere scene tingle with both anticipation and nostalgia. For anybody aware of the original Kong score, it's like a potent childhood experience reborn. I'd almost think that the ideal music for this period-set Kong would be a full-length adaptation of Steiner's original. But a new film needs to set its own identity.
The new King Kong is just short of three hours long, which is almost twice the length of the original. Most humans weren't meant to guzzle large containers of soft drinks and then sit still for that long, which is why they invented intermissions. I'm told that intermissions are impractical now that films are screened in multi-plexes - it would be cost-prohibitive to supervise people sneaking in, and unreasonable to expect all attendees to hang onto their stubs. 1
While squirming through the final hour of the picture one does begin to notice content that could be speeded up or dropped altogether, especially a couple of unnecessary peripheral characterizations. The entire subplot of the first mate's protective relationship with a 'troubled' sailor could have been thrown out wholesale, as it adds nothing to the picture except pretentious dialogue and a thudding reference to Heart of Darkness. Perhaps Denham will find not a giant ape on Skull Island, but Marlon Brando? At one point Jimmy (Jamie Bell) asks Hayes (Evan Parke). "Is this is an adventure?" and gets a sober, "No Jimmy." Besides evoking Marlon Brando again (from the first dialogue in Superman: The Movie), we expect Hayes to say, "No Jimmy, this is no adventure. Now Kong, that's an adventure! 2
I'm told that almost an hour of additional scenes were shot, many of them effects sequences that sound as if they would be just way too much of a good thing. Besides the, "Scream, Ann" camera test seen in the trailer there was originally meant to be an entire crossing-the-bog sequence and an elaborate Lost-World-ish buildup to the valley of sauropods, as well as more monster effects set pieces, action with the cannibal natives, etc.
Speaking of cannibals, the new Kong has a definite New Zealand attitude toward south seas natives in adventure films. They're out-and-out savages even more primitive than the jolly killers in Ferdinand Fairfax's Nate and Hayes, and definitely related to the fiends in Italian exploitation movies of the late 1970s. They're given a genuine sense of menace that makes us forget about giant monkeys, at least for a minute. It's interesting that the film would so carefully protect the Black Hayes character along P.C. lines, and then hand us horrid natives more frightening than those found in pictures like Cannibal Ferox.
Likewise, the expansion of the original's discarded "spider-pit scene" into an Insect Fear Guignol set piece is pretty extreme stuff. The bugs are bad enough, but the revolting leech monsters are an atrocious nightmare. A lot of kids inured to escapist violence in action films could really be shook up by the imagery of a struggling man (poor Andy Serkis again) being methodically devoured by what look like fleshy, fanged penises turned inside-out, complete with glorpy sound effects.
The only major scenes that disappoint are Kong's breaking through the wall and subsequent capture, which don't seem to have the same level of imagination of the rest of the set-pieces, and take place in less-than-thrilling broad daylight. But the finale in New York is stunning on all levels. We feel the terror of the panicked audience while identifying strongly with Kong's rage. We want to see him take the Big Apple down a few pegs. Disturbingly, the bleached blondes in Times Square end up getting the worst of Kong's brief outing in Times Square. Nothing can approximate the new kind of horror felt in the original, when a woman is yanked from her bed, held high in the air, and dropped to her death, perhaps never realizing her experience wasn't a dream. The new Kong only has a few moments of real horror, and they're not connected to the title character.
Kong's relationship with Ann raises their mutual commitment to an operatic scale. The measure of the success of the film for Savant is that this aspect isn't ludicrous ... it's actually quite touching. The mismatched couple are allowed a brief respite in Central Park, a private Bambi moment on the ice. I've heard this scene dissed as being like one of those Coke commercials with the polar bears, and I side with the detractors that ask how a thin sheet of pond ice can support Kong's bulk. The only answer is that doomed monsters and their girlfriends need their brief bit of happiness too.
De Laurentiis' version didn't do badly in the romance area either, at least up until the finale on the World Trade Center opted for an exploitative Peckinpah-esque machine gun bloodbath. Not only were little kids devastated to see their cute hero shot to bits, but Mayor John Agar was in on the kill, which is pretty demeaning. Rick Baker's Kong could be "PG" and gush gallons of blood; '76 was after all the year of Taxi Driver. Nowadays blood is out unless filmmakers like punitive ratings, but I don't think the new Kong would be better with more gore. Denham said he lost 17 sailors on Skull Island ... it feels like at least 40, crushed, splattered and bitten in two.
Perhaps the real lesson in the new King Kong is this: With the film audience splintering into smaller factions, finding the blockbusters that can pull in a wide cross-section of the public is becoming more difficult. Peter Jackson's monumental picture was judged relative to his last work, and by that standard it's been dubbed a "disappointment." Now that audiences are simply consumers demanding 'value' for their ticket purchases, every big budget hit has to be bigger and more exciting than what came before, like new versions of a video game. For audiences with a love of old movies, Jackson's gloriously grandiose Kong Kong has qualities that far outweigh its flaws. Savant enjoyed this picture more than anything he saw last year.
Universal's 2-Disc Special Edition DVD of King Kong presents the film enhanced and widescreen and in the expected spotless transfer. Last Christmas I thought it would probably become a premiere film on HD-DVD but that rollout is still stalled; I can imagine how good this would look in HD. Disc One has the film, a brief bit about a Volkswagen commercial (aha, a cash tie-in) and a sneaky menu selection leading to a trailer for a new Universal film with a New York setting.
Disc two has hours of extra goodies. Post Production Diaries is an extensive breakdown of every aspect of the finishing process after the wrap of principal photography. It's comprised of the remaining segments from the popular Kong is King website that saw weekly updates for over a year and a half. Savant only looked at a couple of them that way but was impressed with Jackson's commitment to his fans. He certainly projects a friendly 'one of the gang' vibe. Watching these humorous mini-shows gives one a realistic idea of the work and skill that goes into a movie. It also amounts to a big commercial for New Zealand, which Jackson has made into a one-man production center.
Skull Island: A Natural History is a loopy takeoff on the PBS Nova show, a 'factual' history of the island offered in a tongue-in-cheek manner similar to Jackson's down-the-garden-path spoof docu Forgotten Silver. Bogus info on dinosaurs is presented along with a cockeyed explanation for the presence of giant gorillas in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We are asked to believe that cramped spaces on Skull Island caused a proliferation of giant predators -- it's priceless. It even ends with a PBS- style offer to buy the show and its accompanying book.
Conversely, Kong's New York, 1933 is a serious portrait of the Big Apple circa 1933 that provides a basic education for kids about the Depression, Prohibition, Al Smith, the city as a port, the skyscraper boom, and finally the Empire State Building. Savant learned a few new things: Prohibition was a punitive measure imposed by conservatives in 'dry' states to punish the perceived wicked 'states' and especially New York City -- the amendment was insanely touted as the solution to all social problems including crime. That concept is still with us in the War on Drugs. Also, the Empire State Building was a financial bust -- it opened 73% vacant and earned more money from tourists going to its observation deck than it did in rent!
The Diaries extra is wonderful but Savant recommends forcing one's children to see the New York docu before watching the feature film ... it really helps to appreciate where King Kong is coming from, so to speak.
A few months ago, I heard some doubts expressed about the chances for an Extended version of King Kong augmented with scenes dropped from the theatrical cut. Because the film didn't make astronomical sums theatrically, the word was that expense of finishing all of the incomplete effects was considered unrealistic. But in the last few weeks rumors have spread that that a longer cut may be in the works after all. So we'll just have to see what happens. Maybe they'll put a video intermission in this time!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King Kong rates:
1. I witnessed one slick trick at a Chinese Theater presentation of the first Lord of the Rings film, where ticket holders weren't challenged until they got to the doors of individual theaters. One group of three kids bought three tickets. The three entered, and then one exited to go to the men's room carrying all three stubs. He handed the extra two tickets to two additional friends, who then were granted free access. In about twenty minutes the three admissions had bloomed to twelve. It beats walking in the exit backwards!
2. Smart remark quoted from a friend.
Dissenting opinions from Savant readers:
4.01.06: "Hey there! Long time reader, first-time bitcher.
I quoted from your KING KONG review on the message board at my site In the Balcony today, and thought I'd bring you into the loop with my feelings about the whole thing.
To me, it's funny and yet insulting that some folks take umbrage at any suggestion that KING KONG shouldn't have been remade at all (see the editorial in the latest issue of "Monsters from the Vault", for instance), so it's nice that you recognize that criticism was to be expected. Including from me. Some films have achieved greatness, and don't need to be remade, they need to be watched. KING KONG is one of them.
On your take on why KONG '05 didn't break B.O. records:
First of all, I get REAL turned off by "some people say..." That is FoxNewsSpeak and means nothing (even when you substitute "interviewees" for "people"). The film didn't do as well as expected because some people didn't want to see it? Huh? Is the idea to make a movie that every man, woman, and child wants to see? Good luck.
I guess my main gripe is the suggestion that it's OUR fault that the movie didn't make more money. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Not the movie's fault for being too long, for miscasting Jack Black, or for being made in the first place, it's our fault, me and my friends all those who didn't go back and see it over and over again to push it over the top. Oh, and those, what did you call them? "Anti-remake purists". I wonder what percentage of the population THAT is.
Here is the REAL reason KONG didn't approach the box office of Lord of the Rings:
It's been done before, and better.
All this aside, love your reviews. --- "Laughing Gravy" In The Balcony
4.02.06: Glenn -- Simply must take a moment to make a point about your KING KONG review.
I almost always agree with you, but not here. I'm one who dislikes this film. It's fine that you like it, and I'm not trying to change your mind - heck, I wish I did like it! Pleasure is always good, especially 3 friggin hours worth!. I had high hopes when I read your initial positive review.
I'm one of those "anti-remake purists" and freely admit it, at least when it comes to films that were good in the first place. (Although I love both Pal's and Spielberg's WOTW's, but I would argue both films are "re-makes" of a BOOK). I could go on for hours about what I perceive as a lack of original thinking and imagination in popular culture today.
My point is only to say that when you write "For audiences with a love of old movies, Jackson's gloriously grandiose Kong Kong has qualities that far outweigh its flaws", you need to insert SOME or MANY . I certainly have a love of old movies, and a reasonably good knowledge of their history, techniques, etc. (although nothing compared to you). You don't mean to imply that those of us who think the flaws DO outweigh the good stuff are not somehow "true believers", I'm sure? This statement's just too sweeping and assumptive.
I know that I'm not alone in my feelings about the film, and many of those who share them aren't just A.D.D. fanboys of 15 with game controllers in their hand who won't watch anything in black and white (which is the demographic I think the movie often panders to, frankly).
Still, I forgive you the slight, so you may now sleep easy again! :-)
Keep up the 99.9% good work! -- Stewart McKissick
4.05.06: Hi Eric, I have a few thoughts on why KING KONG didn't make the 500 million mark.
First of all, if the powers that be were counting on the baby boomers and older generation to fill the box office coffers, the first put-off for this movie was the three hour runtime - without intermission. This 58 year old body would have to stop drinking liquids three weeks in advance to make it through the whole movie. (I subsequently did make it through the whole movie. I had to skip several viewings in order to find a time that I had not consumed liquids beforehand.)
But, the main reason I believe is the failure to recognize that fans wanted the horrific monster of the original KING KONG. This is the same reason that the new GODZILLA failed at the box office. Fans wanted to see the old GODZILLA, but, in a really cool, super bells and whistles state of the art movie. Instead, we were treated to a generic lizard in New York movie. Quite a major disappointment. The gorilla in this KING KONG looked great. It just didn't have the look of the beloved original KING KONG.
I enjoyed Peter Jackson's version of KING KONG. You can tell that this was a work of love for him. But, I would much rather have seen a King Kong that looked like the old Kong and acted like the old Kong. A defiant King Kong on the New York stage, not a broken down puppy.
I watched numerous people leaving the theater in advance of the end of the movie. The killing of King Kong lasted wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy too long.
The original Carl Denham was basically a good hearted showman. Jack Black's Denham was not someone you could care much for. Adrien Brody's character was too foppish. He certainly lacked the strong leading man characteristics of the original. Who was there to really cheer for in this movie? Only King Kong.
I believe that Peter Jackson could have struck box office gold had he stuck to the spirit of the original characters, followed the original storyline a little closer, and shortened the movie. (This is one of those times that I wish that dvd's such as this could be edited by the viewer to a more concise shorter showing.)
But, the biggest put-off for me personally was the scene on the frozen pond. It totally destroyed any thoughts of King Kong being a horrific monster. This scene could have worked wonderfully in the remake of MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, but, was entirely out of line here.
My wonderful wife, recognizing the never ending kid in me, bought me a copy of THE SCI FI BOYS dvd at Best Buy. I am sure you would enjoy it. A homage to Peter Jackson, Forrest J. Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Rick Baker, etc. and the boys who grew up reading Famous Monsters magazine and their careers in the movie industry. (Rick Baker mentions that he wanted to do a more realistic KING KONG, but, the producers wanted a "Hollywood Gorilla" instead.)
As always, keep up the great work! -- Regards, G. J. Rowell