King Kong
directed by Peter Jackson
(Universal, 2005)

I was 10 years old when I saw the big-budget remake of King Kong in 1976. It didn't matter to me then that critics and Kong purists alike roared their disapproval -- I absolutely loved it. Maybe it helped that I had no preconceptions and could let myself be swept away by the sight of the iconic giant gorilla stomping through the jungle and downtown Manhattan.

Later, I saw the original 1933 version on TV, and I appreciated its groundbreaking artistry. But I seem to be one of only a few who liked both. And, following Peter Jackson's triumphant run on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was eager to see what he would do with the world's most famous ape.

Fortunately, Jackson drops the quest for oil that dominated the movie in 1976, returning instead to the original story about an intrepid film crew hanging all its hopes on an exotic island location. After an effective montage establishing the scene in Depression-era New York, we meet down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and ruthlessly ambitious film director Carl Denham (Jack Black). Both have reached the end of their ropes, but together they find a common dream.

After shanghaiing scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), Denham and his film crew set sail on the Venture, a tramp steamer ostensibly en route to Singapore, but really heading for uncharted waters and the legendary Skull Island. The long sea journey has its share of foreboding, but nothing prepares the crew, passengers or audience for what awaits them. Following a dramatic arrival amid rushing water, rocks and fog, Jackson reveals his island landscape: rugged, rocky and harsh, dominated by a massive wall and ruins rivaling anything we've seen in Jackson's Middle-Earth. But the natives who live under the shadow of that wall are no pushovers; they are fierce and deadly, twisted with fear and rage and dreadful custom, and the film crew's first encounter with them is terrifying.

And then we meet Kong, a mighty speciman brought to life through modern methods that far exceed the old stop-action standards -- to say nothing of actors in ape suits. Andy Serkis, best known to many as the model for Gollum, provided much of Kong's movement and expression, and computers handled the rest. Real sets merge with digital landscapes to create a tremendously believable island.

It's here that Darrow, the fragile beauty, demonstrates phenomenal lung power and incredible endurance. In Kong's early scenes he carries the actress like a doll, and not entirely gently, either. But the terrified woman shows surprising reserves of steel, seeing a tender side -- and a surprising sense of humor -- behind Kong's fierce and scarred facade as he battles endlessly to save her from the island's many dangers. While Fay Wray in 1933 remained frightened of Kong to the end and Jessica Lange in 1976 developed a grudging respect, this leading lady looks deep into Kong's soul and grows rather fond of the big ape.

Meanwhile, a doomed rescue party sets forth from the Venture and Driscoll, who began the movie as something of a sad sack, also discovers amazing reservoirs of strength and fortitude. Foremost among the dangers facing them on their trek are hungry dinosaurs of Jurassic Park calibre, including a heart-stopping stampede and avalanche. But let's not forget the gruesome insects -- a nod to a scene cut from the 1933 version -- and Kong himself.

There are also a few giant-sized simian skeletons, poignantly suggesting that Kong is the last, not the only, of his kind. Of course, Darrow is recovered and the angry silverback pursues her to the great wall, where Denham has baited his trap.

The sudden transition to glamorous uptown New York is startling, but the segue from primal island to high society sets up the mayhem and destruction to come. And, believe me, a glimpse of Kong's softer side doesn't stop him from wreaking serious havoc in his angry rampage. Still, we get to see Kong's playful side in a whimsical ice ballet in Central Park.

You'll be amazed how much of this movie looks and feels real -- but Jackson exceeded himself in several scenes. For instance, it's doubtful anyone could survive his visually exciting but overdone running of the brachiosaurs. An impressive sequence of t-rex on Kong action features an epic but highly improbable series of cliff-and-vine acrobatics. And there's a very unlikely get-away scene involving a much too convenient bat.

Too, the script gives a little too much screen time to secondary characters, such as Hayes (Evan Parke), the ship's wise and kindly first mate, and cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell), a streetwise scamp who lives under Hayes' wing. The ship's crew as a whole eats up precious time on the voyage, making dire foreshadowings that aren't really necessary.

It all ends, as we know it must, atop the towering Empire State Building, where a dazzling view of the New York skyline at dawn is prelude to a dizzying display of biplane aeronautics.

The conclusion is inevitable, yet horrifying and sad all the same. Kong is as legendary in his way as hobbits and elves, and Jackson has treated that legend with the respect it deserves. This epic remake is destined to be a classic.

by Tom Knapp
21 January 2006

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