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Three years have passed since Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong hit the screens. Fickle fantasy fans both applauded and criticized the gargantuan show for the expected reasons. The dissenters claimed loyalty to Merian C.Cooper's 1933 original, a cinematic wonder movie that everyone should know can't be diminished by a remake. In the middle 1970s Universal and Paramount dueled for the right to remake the story of Carl Denham's 50-foot ape. Paramount and Dino de Laurentiis won out, producing a man-in-suit version that's now almost forgotten. A product of the Forrest Ackerman Famous Monsters generation, Jackson turned to Kong as a personal payoff project after the enormous success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. This new Kong benefits from the special effects expertise gained by Jackson's effects company WETA.
Jackson's King Kong works hard to recreate the Great Depression in both appearance and spirit. The unemployed of New York are living in tent cities built in Central Park. The basic plot hews closely to Ruth Rose's original outline, but adds material to every step. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is now a starving vaudeville chorine; jungle movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black, much maligned for his appropriately snappy performance) is on the run from irate studio executives. The Venture flees New York Harbor with the law on its heels, a nod perhaps to the more down-and-out Son of Kong. On board is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), formerly the first mate but now a progressive playwright of works with titles like Isolation. Strangely, when we finally see a Driscoll play on the boards, it's more like something by Neil Simon. Does the island adventure have a Sullivan's Travels- like effect on Driscoll?
The new King Kong is a three-hour epic of the kind that once had an intermission; they really should have added one. The exceedingly economical original moved at a brisk adventure-movie clip, zipping from one spectacular scene to the next. Much of the new material in Jackson's movie is enjoyable -- Kyle Chandler's narcissistic matinee idol Bruce Baxter is particularly amusing -- but it takes altogether too long for the boat to get where it's going. By that time the main musical theme is almost worn out. I believe the original Kong doesn't even have music until the fog parts to reveal Skull Island in the mist.
From the landing onward Jackson's movie is a heck of a fun ride, with cannibals, dinosaurs, monster insects and other jungle thrills providing excellent escapism. Some of it is silly -- natives pole-vaulting hundreds of yards; machine-gunning giant crickets off Driscoll -- but the core thrills are the kind of jungle adventure delights that became extinct decades ago. Almost everything not directly concerned with Darrow, Kong, Driscoll or Denham could stand substantial trimming, and a couple of subplots should have been eliminated altogether. Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann)'s role is nicely proportioned to the story, but Jackson gives us not one but two "loving" relationships among the crew. Cooks Lumpy (Andy Serkis) and Choy (Lobo Chan) appear to be bosom partners, while the sidebar business between First Mate Hayes (Evan Parke) and simpering rookie sailor Jimmy (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot) punches a soggy hole in the movie's forward momentum. Bruce Baxter's movie star vacillates between pragmatic selfishness ("Coming through!") and outright Tarzan heroism, a contradiction that gums up the film's dramatics.
Jackson puts his biggest effort into the Ann Darrow / giant ape chemistry, and it pays off. A meld of gorilla behaviors and mime translated (through motion capture?) from actor Andy Serkis, Kong is a grumbling old Alpha Bull pissed off at the world but fascinated by his tiny blonde toy. Kong's depth of feeling is of course exaggerated, but in the long history of movie monsters, any beast that generates pathos and sympathy is a guaranteed winner. Jackson's pace can be on the slow side, with too many drawn-out "meaningful" stares between Ann and her super-simian leading man. But the movie achieves so much that complaining about this seems like outright ingratitude.
I have no problem whatsoever with the comedic dinosaur stampede, which for my money sums up everything that's fun about prehistoric monster movies. The beautifully-animated multi-monster pileup is too funny for words; it reminds me of the cartoon elephants and hippos that blow away in the breeze in Disney's Fantasia. The film's action centerpiece, the battle between Kong and a trio of tyrannosauri, is everything it wants to be and more: a world-class duke-out and a giddy Jackie Chan / Buster Keaton game of impossible, fantastic jeopardy.
We do find ourselves patiently waiting for some scenes to finish, like Kong's capture on the beach. I just don't see Englehorn's men attempting to subdue the hairy juggernaut with a few ropes and bottles of chloroform. But the monster designs, the lush jungle settings and the colossal native wall can't be bettered; whatever the movie cost, it looks and moves as if its price were double.
Jackson wisely doesn't carry over Max Steiner's score wholesale, but Carl Denham's floor show premiere of "The 8th Wonder of the World" on Times Square makes a grand use of Steiner's main themes, pulling our nostalgic strings. Kong amuck in New York can't approach the iconic grandeur of the original, but taken on its own terms it's very impressive. The brief play date on the Central park ice is a welcome respite, a pause in the destruction and mayhem that cements the Darrow / Kong "romance". The Empire State climax is handled almost identically to the original film, as if Jackson had worked all his variations and was now ready to play the finish utterly straight. I saw the new Kong with a preview audience as well as in a normal theater and both times the audience reacted positively to practically every scene. It's difficult to think of this giant entertainment as being in any way a failure.
I understand how Jackson's King Kong might seem a betrayal to the generation of artisans that re-started fantasy filmmaking by rediscovering the "lost arts" (Dave Allen's phrase) of mattes and stop-motion animation. With its rubber suit, cut-price designs and rip-off robot, the 1976 Kong was a slap in the face to the faithful that adored Willis O'Brien's Kong and valued his legacy. I'm not offended by Peter Jackson's work. It's a sincere act of love for a favorite film and not a cheap de Laurentiis attempt to cash in on the legend. I don't think it diminishes the original, but will instead increase interest in older adventure classics. There's more to film escapism than family-safe offerings like the latest Indiana Jones spectacle.
Universal finally delivers its Blu-ray version of the 2005 King Kong, a title that sold a lot of HD-DVD units two years ago. The one disc contains the entire feature encoded with a choice of theatrical or extended versions, both in stunning quality. The buzzing dragonflies and other minute digital details lost on the DVD versions are back again, making a viewing on a large monitor like a trip back to the theater -- except you can pause for a kidney break if needed. With the lossless audio, the ship's fog horn, Kong's roar and Darrow's screams will shake your house, so be considerate of the neighbors.
The extended version amounts to twelve minutes of additional material, more than half of which is dedicated to an extended jungle scene of Denham's crew crossing a bog in their search for Ann Darrow. The corresponding sequence from 1933 featured a brontosaurus that upset the log raft and ate a sailor or two; the update has the rafts attacked by an aquatic monster that seems a cross between a mosasaur and a fanged catfish. In any other prehistoric island epic this would be a highlight, but it slows the film's forward progression. It is nice to see Carl Denham hefting a submachine gun like a pro, although his practice effort chops his own raft in half. If Jack Black had any acting discipline, he'd make an amusing 30s gangster.
Other brief additions are superfluous, like a sergeant urging his truckload of soldiers to defend Manhattan against the ape invader. Having the choice of the two versions remains a luxury.
Some of Universal's Blu-rays have not been carrying over all of the extras from earlier DVD special editions, a practice that can become frustrating for collectors. The DVD 2-Disc Special Edition was not flush with goodies, as Universal released a separate disc set with all of the behind-the-scenes diaries and special goodies. On this Blu-ray, Kong's Extended Version bears a full commentary with Peter Jackson and co-producer and writer Philippa Boyens. They frequently refer to "documentaries" that no longer appear. We miss the DVD's nice (and educational) piece on the Depression years.
The extras that do appear are all Picture-in Picture U-Control features that pop up during screenings of the Extended Version only -- cast and crew interviews, BTS snippets, conceptual art. The BD Live offerings don't seem very attractive, as I'm not interested in collecting my favorite scenes or hooking my player to the Internet to send them to my friends. The last thing I want to do is register with a "BD-Live Center" so that I can access more marketing material. I know that the Blu-ray developers want to create a more interactive experience and erase the distinctions between Home Video and the Internet, but I've yet to see substantial benefit for the consumer. The fantastic Blu-ray image is more than worth the trouble, without the frills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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