Director Peter Jackson was just 9 years old when he saw Merian Cooper’s 1933 “King Kong” on television in his native New Zealand. Fascinated by the mystery, adventure, and magic of filmmaking, he immediately began making clay models of his own and filming them with his parents’ 8mm movie camera, vowing someday to remake “King Kong” with better technology and a greater emphasis on the love story of Kong and Ann Darrow. Along the way he made “The Lord of the Rings,” earning several Oscars – enough Hollywood clout to make, finally, the film of his dreams.
Jackson’s remake is true to the original story, down to the repetition of certain key lines. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) is one step ahead of his creditors as he charters a ship and heads for the mysterious “Skull Island, where he and the ship’s crew will encounter ferocious dinosaurs, giant man-eating bugs, and a weird voodoo civilization making human
sacrifices to a 50-foot ape. Before Denham and the crew leave for the island, he shanghais a screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), to complete a script for his movie en route. He also engages a beautiful out-of-work actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), to play the romantic lead. When Ann is captured by the villagers and sacrificed to Kong, Driscoll and Denham rescue her, capture Kong, and take him back to New York to display as the”eighth wonder of the world.”
Jackson’s new version expands the themes Cooper only hints at. For example, Cooper waits until the end to suggest the love angle between King Kong and Ann Darrow, giving the audience an “aha” moment when the beast’s motivation becomes clear; only then do we feel chagrin for having been afraid of this beast who was merely trying to protect his woman and go back home. Jackson, however, develops the love story as it happens: Ann falls for Kong, the strong, macho hero who literally sweeps her off her feet in a thrilling scene as he battles three attacking T-rexes to protect her; meanwhile, Kong falls for the delicate beauty with a seductive sense of humor, who woos him with her vaudeville act.
It may sound implausible, but who wouldn’t fall for a big lug who watches a whole sunset without reaching for the remote, and knows it’s his job to kill the giant bugs that hang around the cave? Later, in New York, Jackson adds a scene of Kong and Ann frolicking on the ice pond at Central Park, a carefree romp reminiscent of romantic comedies of the ’40s and ’50s. For Jackson’s King Kong, the relationship with Ann is no unrequited afterthought but a developing, two-way emotion based on humor, respect, and yes, animal magnetism.
That emotion is developed brilliantly by Andy Serkis (Gollum in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”), who brings life to the computerized Kong, and by Naomi Watts as Ann. Although Watts receives top billing, she has very little dialogue, mostly reacting with animal emotion – hunger, survival, terror, sexuality. Hauntingly beautiful, with expressive eyes, Watts carries the role without becoming melodramatic. Her Ann is as animalistic and primitive as Serkis’ Kong is human and thoughtful.
Ann, in this depiction, is drawn in by the primal urge for storytelling. Early in the film, as Denham describes his obsession to make his movie, her eyes tell us that she is captivated by the story. She already knows the story: she is the story. She anticipates its ending when she says, “Good things never last.”
If this film has a flaw, it is that it lasts too long. At three hours and seven minutes, it needs trimming. I wouldn’t remove any scenes, but each scene could be shorter. Trim ten seconds here, 30 seconds there, a minute or two from somewhere else, and the film could come in at a reasonable two hours and 20 minutes. But when you’ve asked the studio for an extra $20 million for computer graphics, and coughed up an additional $30 million of your own, it must be hard to say, “Sorry, I changed my mind.”
Nevertheless, this “King Kong” delivers. Jackson has written an intelligent, literary script to go with his tensely drawn action sequences. He inserts multiple references to other literary works. A mysterious cabin boy reads Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” suggesting that the film will explore Conrad’s themes of obsession, imperialism, and what it means to be human. Denham’s obsession to press forward, his need to uncover the mysteries, echoes the doomed Oedipus. Jackson recalls Heming- way’s “The ‘. Sun Also Rises” with a stampede of dinosaurs reminiscent of the running of the bulls at Pamplona. He subtly pays homage to the original Ann Darrow by having Denham refer to actress Fay Wray. And Kong’s now iconic climb is no longer an escape to a rocky tower that he remembers from his island; it’s a doomed lovers’ rendezvous. Evidently, even before “An Affair to Remember” spawned “Sleepless in Seattle,” Kong and Ann had headed for the most romantic spot in New York City – the top of the Empire State Building.
Perhaps the most significant, and
the most subtle, literary echo is that of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” When writer Driscoll is tricked into sailing with the ship to Skull Island, there aren’t enough cabins for him, so he beds down in an animal cage in the hold. Several scenes show him writing behind bars, while director Denham dictates what to write. Ann falls simultaneously for the writer inside the cage, who attracts her with words, and for the beast in the jungle, who attracts her with his unspoken manliness. Both Kong and Driscoll entertain her, rescue her, and seduce her, yet they never fight each other for her. When Kong dies, Driscoll is there to comfort her. Did Kong really exist, or is he merely the writer’s alter ego?
In this new context, Denham’s closing line, “‘Twas Beauty killed the Beast,” seems to suggest that the magnetic beastliness that attracts a woman to a man is, ironically, tamed out of existence through love. Although she feels safe in Driscoll’s cerebral embrace, a part of her will always yearn for the beast. But the cerebral writer has been changed by the experience too – he has run with the bulls, faced down a giant gorilla, and proved that no mountain is high enough to keep him from getting to the woman he loves. Kong lives, after all.