Not often enough, a film overflows with the director's enthusiasm and glee, jam-packed with action sequences, outstanding special effects, good and bad dialogue and acting, everything, good and bad, is just completely over the top. When I see a film like this, I can tell the filmmaker is really in love with his job, because they have crafted a film with such loving detail that everything they have is on the screen.
Peter Jackson's "King Kong" is such a film. After watching Merian C. Cooper's original 1933 "King Kong", Jackson decided he wanted to make films. He has, reportedly, wanted to do a remake for years, but was unable to get the funding. Then "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy became an international hit and his fortunes changed.
What he has created is an eye-popping, excessive, overly long, thoroughly entertaining adventure film with some believable romance.
As this is his lifelong dream project, Jackson has put everything into the film. Using the 1933 film as a template, the director and his team of screenwriters have fleshed out the back-story of the characters, giving us details of their life before they reach Skull Island, making them interesting, human and believable.
Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker with ideas and aspirations larger than his budget. The studio wants a B-picture about the jungle and Denham wants to film an epic masterpiece on an uncharted island located on a recently discovered map. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling vaudeville performer. Her theater closes unexpectedly leaving her on the cold streets of New York, hungry, with no paycheck. Denham needs a lead actress, spots Ann, takes her to dinner, and convinces her to star in his movie. That evening, she meets the screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), more or less shanghaied by Denham. Ann greatly admires Driscoll's plays and would love to star in his newest production. When they arrive, Skull Island, a barren, rocky place, appears to be deserted, but the locals soon appear and believe Ann should be sacrificed to "Kong", the beast who rules beyond the giant wall the natives have built. Soon, Kong has taken Ann and the rest of the group trek through the strange island to get her back.
At 187 minutes, "Kong" is a massive undertaking, both for filmmaker and audience. The extended length of time allows Jackson and his team to really explore the characters, helping the viewer get to know them before they arrive at the Island and all hell breaks loose. For instance, we learn the dire straits both Ann and Carl are in, prompting them to make this journey and this film. We learn why Jack, a respected playwright would become involved. All of this fleshes out the characters and helps them become more life like. When they are in danger, we care about their safety and the film becomes more memorable as a result.
After "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, we expect the special effects work on "Kong" to be phenomenal. And it is. Later in the film, when we first see Kong, he takes our breath away. Extremely realistic in every aspect, he moves like an ape, reacts like an ape, and looks like a giant ape. If you have ever seen the 1933 film, Kong frequently changes size, in one scene he is 25 feet, later climbing up the Empire State building, he is 10 stories tall. Clearly, these special effects were advanced for the time, and the fact that they could create Kong at all is a miracle. But this wouldn't work in this day and age. Thankfully, with the advancement of special effects, "Kong" always looks the same size. He looks 25 feet tall when he first meets Ann and he looks 25 feet tall as he scales the Empire State Building.
Just as the filmmakers have spent a lot of time fleshing out the humans, they also devote considerable screen time making Kong a real character. They give him feelings, emotions and a personality. Naturally, he is scary and intimidating, but the focus changes from terrorizing Ann to protecting her, becoming a scary adversary to all of the external forces that may appear to threaten her. In this film, we believe this change. He has believable facial expressions and interacts with the humans in natural, different ways. This may be the first time a CGI character has had a fully developed character arch. Andy Serkis, so memorable as Gollum in the "LOTR" trilogy, is largely responsible for making Kong a believable creature, giving the huge ape largely human characteristics. Simply great work.
From the moment we first see 1933 New York, you realize you are in the hands of a master who loves to play with his toys. The city has a slightly romantic look, lights appear soft and glowing, snow rounds the hard edges, yet Jackson reminds us this is a city in the grips of the Depression. People are being evicted from their homes. The homeless have set up tent cities in the middle of Central Park. Theaters are closing. At times, the CGI backgrounds created for the film almost resemble the old fashioned painted backgrounds used in films of the 30s and 40s. I don't think this is a coincidence. I am sure Jackson did this as a homage to the films of this period.
The entire sequence on Skull Island is filled with more special effects than any one of the "Jurassic Park" films. Kong battles some T-Rexes who want Ann for a tasty hors d'oeuvre, protecting her as he fights and rolls around with the dinosaurs. This sequence is what most filmmakers are striving for when someone describes an action sequence as "a roller coaster ride". Suprising, believable, exciting and wonderful. The rescue team has to deal with a brontosaurus stampede and, later, insects so large you shoot them rather than swat them away. The brontosaurus stampede is equally eye popping and an equally diverting theme park attraction.
Throughout, Jackson and his team have gone to great lengths to make every frame of celluloid believable, heightening the power of the film. Occasionally, they aren't quite successful. For instance, Kong's initial rampage through the jungle holding a screaming Ann, is not entirely convincing. The camera follows Ann, flopping back and forth, as Kong gallops through the jungle, revealing that she is clearly a computer creation. Even though these brief problems are distracting, they are also a little endearing, as though this might be another of Jackson's tributes to the original film. As much as I wish the graphics were completely believable throughout, I think the very brief lapses add a little charm to the film.
All of the special effects work in the world will not solely create a great film. Jackson devotes a lot of time, as previously mentioned, building the back story of the human characters, making them believable, and he and partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have crafted some great dialogue throughout adding yet another dimension to what easily could be just another briefly entertaining exercise in CGI. All of this work with characters, dialogue and back story has helped to ensure his "Kong" will be king.
Naomi Watts more than holds her own when sharing screen time with a giant ape. And she does a good job with King Kong as well. Ann Darrow is a more fully realized heroine allowing Watts more to work with. Watts gives us a first hand look as we witness Ann's struggles as an actress, to live, and to eat. There are also subtle hints at her character throughout, making her more complex and interesting than we could expect.
Adrian Brody is also very good as Jack Driscoll, a rising playwright. Caught on the boat as it leaves, he has no choice but to make the journey. Resigned, with nowhere else to go, he sets out to write the best screenplay possible. Then he meets Ann, and falls in love. She is equally smitten, but unwilling to make the first move. Unfortunately, Jack is unable to speak the words he wants to say, pouring his heart out on the page.
I found the news Jack Black was cast in the film odd. Black's previous film work is filled with over the top starring roles in broad comedies. Nothing he has ever done would indicate he is capable of such a role in a film like this. Black's portrayal of Denham is interesting, over the top and inconsistent.
Denham is an egotistical man, willing to put his film ahead of almost anything else, including the lives of a few crew members. As people in his crew are threatened, he secretly works with Preston (Colin Hanks), his assistant, to protect the film and their camera. When all hope of saving the film is lost, Denham comes up with Plan B. Black is able to adequately convey the inherent shiftiness in Denham's character, but at all times, there appears to be a joke or punch line bubbling below the surface, ready to break through. This makes the character seem less interesting, robbing Denham of some of the intensity he should have.
Also, Black's performance doesn't have a lot of subtlety or nuance. When he realizes all chance of saving his film is lost, he shows little emotion except to stare at the exposed film. When he comes up with Plan B, to take Kong to New York, we don't see any part of his thinking, his planning, the moment when the idea pops into his head. This could be a result of Jackson's editing and direction, but Watts conveys a lot about her character whenever she is on screen, including having a relationship with a big ape. Black doesn't seem to view every moment of screen time as an opportunity to advance his character.
Unfortunately, the occasionally corny dialogue, endearing in other actor's mouths, doesn't work well for Black. He doesn't have the skill to pull it off, making it occasionally sound like punch lines, eliciting laughs at the wrong time. Denham's famous last line loses all power because Black is unable to portray the character's traits and pull it off. Thankfully, there is always enough going on around him to almost completely distract us from any problems with the character.
At 187 minutes, "Kong" is a massive undertaking for the audience as well. Towards the end of the third hour, I began to wish Jackson had made two films. The first hour, as we learn about the humans, is fun and amusing. The second hour is action packed and builds a believable relationship between Ann and Kong. But this hour is so filled with amazing action that we are exhausted by the time it comes to a close. Then, when the film slows down, to reestablish New York and set-up the events for the climax, it begins to feel like we have been sitting for a long, long time. As the climax begins to build, things begin to move a bit, as Kong makes his way to the Empire State Building. In a way, Jackson is a victim of his own success; the third hour is unable to top the second. Don't get me wrong: "Kong" deserves each and every one of its 187 minutes, but it could also deserve each and every one of its 165 minutes and still be a truly exceptional film.
Jackson's films just keep getting better and better. There are few filmmakers who could've handled the "LOTR" trilogy as well. With "King Kong", Jackson uses each and every skill, tool and artistic ability he has ever learned to create an eye-popping, excessive, overly long, thoroughly entertaining adventure film which will surely inspire a new crop of young men and women to become filmmakers.
I can't wait to see what they create to interpret their lifelong dreams.