Friday, January 27, 2006


King Loooooooooooooooong

By Edward Copeland
Great special effects alone does not a good movie make. This is most decidedly the case with Peter Jackson's bloated remake of King Kong. As a general rule, I try to avoid remakes of good and great films on principle, but with the mostly positive reviews of King Kong, I finally relented and watched it. I should have stuck by my initial thoughts.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to admire in Jackson's film — as one would expect, the technical work is outstanding — but the 3 hour running time is absolutely ridiculous. I'm sure it might be possible to make a 3 hour thrill ride, but not when the main attraction of the ride doesn't show up until after an hour and 10 minutes of exposition.

Some critics have tried to make the comparison that Jackson's choice not to show us the great ape until more than an hour into the movie is akin to Steven Spielberg holding off on showing us the shark in Jaws. Setting aside the fact that the delay in showing the shark had more to do with technical problems than a plan, there are two important differences: 1) the shark is always a presence, even if you don't see it and 2) the surrounding story and characters are so involving in Jaws that it doesn't matter.

Unlike the Hobbitologists out there who believe that Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was some kind of holy sign sent to humans in the form of three way-too-long movies, I wasn't a big fan of the films. I thought the first installment was good, but not great and I didn't care much for parts two and three, even while I admired parts of all the films.

It seems that getting away with three blockbusters in a row than ran more than three hours went to Jackson's head — because there is no reason King Kong needs to be this long. The great 1933 version told the whole story in barely more than 90 minutes — and it's still the best version. In fact, if it weren't for the great effects and outstanding art direction and cinematography, I can't say that Jackson's version is that substantially better than the 1976 remake.

I remember standing in line to see the 1976 version — I was 7 years old and had not yet developed my anti-remake philosophy — and though I eventually realized its lameness, it did have some things that were superior to Jackson's version. While Naomi Watts is a huge improvement on Jessica Lange, I can't say that Adrien Brody and Jack Black are really better than Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin were in their similar 1976 roles.

In fact, Watts is probably the best non-effect in this movie. You have to suffer from a one-scene romance between her and Brody that really belongs in a movie of the 1930s, but thankfully Watts' Ann Darrow really seems to grow to care for the giant ape — and who can blame her? Kong has more charisma and depth than Brody's character does.

While there are some great action sequences, I found that even some of the effects looked phonier than they should — especially the dinosaur stampede on the island. (Sidenote: a friend of mine pointed out than in all the versions of this story, it's odd that everyone goes crazy about the giant ape but no one seems compelled to mention that there is an island that has living dinosaurs on it.)

Another thing that I think was a little better in the 1976 version is that it at least included scenes that showed Kong on the ship sailing back to New York. Jackson's version cheats — we see Kong passed out and captured, but there is nothing to indicate how they get him on the ship or if anything happens on the ship. The next scene has us back in New York for Kong's Broadway debut, though I'm sure Jackson probably has those scenes in the can for the inevitable extended 4-hour DVD version.

Don't get me wrong — I don't think the 1976 version was good either. In fact, the most memorable thing to come out of that version for me was a Colorform play kit that I wish I still had, if only to have a tangible, iconic version of the World Trade Center I could hold in my hands now.

Even though Jackson's film has made a lot of money, it's considered a financial disappointment in the United States. Hopefully, Jackson has learned a lesson — a movie doesn't have to be long just because you can get away with making it long.

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I agree with you that the fawning critical response to Peter Jackson's King Kong has been, for the most part, disproportionate to the film's actual merits. You've outlined in good detail exactly why the first third of the film is pretty rough going - the limitations of Team Jackson's screenwriting skills are painfully apparent in scenes that feature more talking than running (or, in the case of the LOTR trilogy, decapitating Orks).

That said, I found more to enjoy in Kong than you did. It's obviously no match for the 1933 original, which retains a kind of beauty in its simplicity - the cutting-edge effects from the Meriam C. Cooper version look fairly primitive by modern standards, but they're executed with a kind of gonzo ingenuity that still elicits gasps. Peter Jackson has that same kind of breathtaking, barnstorming ability when it comes to the crafting of action sequences. In terms of the way they've been conceived and choreographed, Jackson's action is as compelling in its own right as Spielberg and Cameron's. When the film is on the move, it's a rocking good time - it's only when it's standing still that things fall flat.

If there's one thing I would point to as...well, I won't call it an improvement, since that would be tantamount to sacrilege...but if there's one respect in which Jackson's film distinguishes itself from its predecessor in a positive way, it's in its consideration of the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow.

The decision to humanize Kong to the point where he actually functions on the level of a human character yields a very unexpected and satisfying result. The bond between Kong and Darrow is rendered in such a way that it does manage to achieve the kind of mythic-romance proportions that Jackson is striving for. Admittedly, this is due in no small part to the invaluable contributions of Noami Watts and Andy Serkis; but credit is also due to Jackson and his collaborators, who find a fascinating new wrinkle in a classic piece of American iconography. For the first time, this is a real relationship, with complicated emotions on both sides. For all its bells and whistles and high-octane action, the film's best scene is probably its quietest - the tender, funny yet sad moment between Kong and Darrow on the ice in Central Park. Of course, we know that such a delicate moment can't last; what makes it so moving is the manner in which Noami Watts and her computer-generated partner communicate to the audience that they know it too.
Josh R is right -- the Kong/Ann relationship is the heart of the movie, and always was, really. When you watch the film with a packed crowd you can feel them relaxing and giving themselves over to the movie whenever Watts and Serkis are doing their thing.

Give Jackson credit for humanizing special effects: his collaboration with Serkis in the RINGS films and KONG is the fantasy version of the Scorsese/De Niro partnership. Because Serkis wears a green suit and the actual character is superimposed later, he can actually act OPPOSITE costars rather than having to react to what they did months earlier, or giving them something to react to months later, which is how it's generally been done up till now. I think the only things standing between Jackson and a place in the pantheon of great pop artists is (1) an understanding that less can indeed be more, and (2) a realization that he is, in fact, one hell of an actors' director, albiet one who guides actors to the sorts of simple, stylized performances that critics have generally lost the ability to appreciate.
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