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King Kong
Theatrical preview review

King Kong
2005 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic / 187 min. /
Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody
Cinematography Andrew Lesnie
Production Designer Grant Major
Art Direction Simon Bright, Dan Hennah
Film Editor Jamie Selkirk
Original Music James Newton Howard
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson from a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh
Directed by Peter Jackson

A non-spoiler Review by Glenn Erickson

Savant had heard disquieting things about the new King Kong, including rumors that it was in trouble, that the soundtrack was replaced at the last minute, etc. An acquaintance who works for the MPAA saw it weeks ago and wasn't at all impressed.

I'm happy to report that King Kong is sensational, an extremely exciting and satisfying picture in every way. It's stupendous, it's colossal -- and at over three hours perhaps a bit too long. But I was never bored, quite the contrary. Almost the entire picture is a special effect, with 1930s New York as much of a digital marvel as Skull Island. The period setting makes the film as relevant and fascinating as the original, and every scene propels us further into fantastic high adventure.

By and large everything in this version is done right. Added back stories lend the adventurers different occupations with only Jack Black's monomaniac movie producer pretty much identical to the original Denham. He does exhibit an added layer of shady manipulation, but he's a crazy showman all the way. Or just enthusiastic, depending on one's point of view.

The art direction is superb, with New York like a fanciful color illustration from a 30s magazine and Skull Island only part-way stylized into the eerie Doré landscapes of the original. Jackson's take on the story hews closely to major plot points, going wildly on its own for major action sequences but paying homage to many set-pieces from the originals. Much of Carl Denham's original dialogue is retained, and it still rings true. The action highlights are just stupendous. Some shots in the stormy landing on Skull Island are rather exaggerated and there is plenty of overly hyped action, but it's all in the service of wild and wooly adventure.

Without cataloguing any of the thrills, let me observe that the movie gets frightening once in awhile, and has a lot of throwaway mayhem and graphic violence. Insect fear gets a solid workout, with a few situations that will definitely traumatize young children: Think oozing giant leech monsters. The introduction of the Skull Islanders owes more than a little to Italian cannibal movies. Skull Island is one dangerous place, a giant monster playground. The tame action in the Jurassic Park sequels will be forgotten after seeing these pell-mell, topsy turvy dinosaur encounters. One crazy scene has giant sauropods crashing all over each other like the hippos and elephants in Fantasia, and this version's battle between Kong and the Tyrannosaur builds on the basic situation like a fantastic Buster Keaton gag, or a Jackie Chan action set-piece. Even when the mayhem goes outragously over-the-top, we sit there goggle-eyed. The jaded early preview audience Savant saw the picture with applauded spontaneously at at least five places. The experience reminded me of seeing the first Star Wars in preview and being carried away by the excitement.

Kong is acted or modeled or whatever by Andy Serkis, everyone's favorite Gollum, and his terrific animal characterization is a shrewd compromise between savage beast and sympathetic suitor for Ann Darrow. Their 'romance' is all done in pantomime, and thus bests the cute talk between Jessica Lange and Rick Baker in the blah '76 remake. This Ann Darrow doesn't talk to Kong as if he were Lassie, or make coy jokes about 'relationships' - no tongue-in-cheek "funny business" this time around. The emotional payoff is strong, so much so that Adrien Brody gets eclipsed as Naomi Watts' object of romance. In the original the Darrow-Kong relationship was scarcely a between-the-lines interpretation, and is probably the angle that made the Jessica Lange "atsa-my-Kong" de Laurentiis version watchable. It works like magic in this outing.

The only parts of the movie that seemed a waste were some ineffective subplotting between a couple of Venture crewmen - ponderous thoughts on "Heart of Darkness," no less - and the actual scene where Kong breaches the Skull Island wall. It hasn't the sense of grandeur it needs (it happens in broad daylight) and pales next to the original. The actual capture stretches even this picture's limits of believability -- Kong can overpower all those bruising monsters in the jungle, but a few men with ropes can suddenly restrain him.

The music score was reportedly put together in just a few weeks, an impressive feat. It's all mood music. Vaudeville routines and other Depression-Era tunes are nicely worked into the soundtrack as well. But the most moving section is Kong's exhibition at the Alhambra theater, where we get some spectacular renditions of Max Steiner's original themes, including the descending three-note Kong theme. The only specific new music I remember from earlier in the picture is a cue introducing the Venture, which starts off almost identically to You Only Live Twice.

I could write more about the movie (mostly praise) but each comment would ruin a fine surprise or gag - there'll be time enough in the future to get analytical with this sure winner. I recommend that it be seen knowing as little about it as possible. Don't take kids that are too small - the jeopardy, the strong emotions and a couple of gross-out visuals would easily be too much for them.

It's very, very good and wonderful entertainment and Savant recommends it highly. It's too bad that multiplex screenings have rendered intermissions obsolete: three hours and seven minutes is a long time between bathroom breaks. Be forewarned!

Reviewed at a preview at The Director's Guild, December 10, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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