Saturday, March 20, 2021

Stubs - King Kong (2005) - Bigger, longer but not necessarily better

King Kong (2005) Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, Evan Parke, Lobo Chan, Kyle Chandler, Andy Serkis Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson. Based on King Kong by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Edgar Wallace, Merian C. Cooper. Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson. Run time: 187 minutes. New Zealand, United States. Color. Monster. Adventure.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gene Siskel, the deceased film critic from Chicago. I forgot the film he was discussing with his co-host Roger Ebert, but it had to be a remake because Siskel opined something to the effect of "don’t remake films that worked, remake the ones that didn’t." Case in point here, King Kong (1933), which happens to be one of director Peter Jackson’s favorite films. So what does he do with the clout he had developed from directing The Lord of the Rings trilogy but to remake King Kong.

The original King Kong may not have aged well, especially since many of the special effects are practical in a world now populated by CGI. Let’s face it, Kong, as depicted in the original, is not without its shortcomings. All that said, and whatever criticism you want to throw at it, as Ebert once wrote, “there is something ageless and primeval about King Kong that still somehow works.” It is not a film that was begging for a remake, let alone a second one after the updated 1976 version.

Jackson was originally set to direct the makeup in 1997 with Miramax and Universal set to share the distribution but when things stalled at Universal, he went on to direct Lord of the Rings. In 2003, Universal approached him again about the film and set a release date in 2005.

Like Lord of the Rings, this remake was filmed in New Zealand beginning on September 6, 2004. The budget, originally set at $150 million, eventually climbed to $207 million, then a record for most expensive film ever made.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) eavesdrops on a meeting while his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) watches.

Unlike the 1976 remake, this King Kong goes back to its roots, depression-era New York City. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) reveals to his financial backers that he’s changed what his current film is about after coming into possession of a map that highlights an unknown island. Denham needs to make a quick departure before the financiers can find him but learns from his assistant, Preston (Colin Hanks), that the actress they had contracted for the shoot has pulled out. In desperate need, he goes out looking for a new actress.

Denham needs to make a quick escape but has to find a new actress before he does.

When he goes to a burlesque theater he chances to see Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a down on her luck stage comedienne, whose vaudeville show has closed down unexpectedly, at least to her and the rest of the cast. She is desperate enough to have gone to the burlesque theater to look for work. But she chickens out, but not before catching Denham’s eye.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is an actress with no future at the beginning of the film.

He follows her and rescues her when a sidewalk vendor nabs her for stealing an apple. Over dinner, Denham convinces her to join the excursion. Part of the pull for her is that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), her favorite playwright, has written the script.

Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is the playwright who gets he gets hijacked on the SS Venture.

But he has only written a part of the script, 15 pages, and is anxious to get back to his playwriting when Denham manages to hijack him into coming along. With no cabins available, Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) offers Driscoll one of the animal cages they have in the ship’s hold.

Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann).

Also onboard is Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), an actor who specializes in adventure films.

Filming begins onboard the SS Venture, with Carl Denham directing from behind the camera.

Filming begins onboard the SS Venture, under Carl's pretense it will be sailing to Singapore. In truth, Carl intends to sail to and film the mysterious Skull Island from the map. Captain Englehorn has second thoughts about the voyage, prompted by his crew's speculation of trouble ahead.

While onboard together, Ann and Jack fall in love. Jack tells Ann that he is so enamored with her that he’s starting to write a play just for her.

The Venture receives a radio message informing Englehorn there is a warrant for Carl's arrest due to his defiance of the studio's orders to cease production. The message instructs Englehorn to divert to Rangoon, but before he does, the ship becomes lost in a fog and runs aground on Skull Island.

Denham, Ann, Jack, and Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) on Skull Island.

Englehorn wants to get the ship repaired back at sea but Carl and his crew explore the island. The island is encircled by a high wall. The village they stumble upon appears to be uninhabited but in fact, the natives who live there are in hiding. The party is attacked by natives who kill two members of the crew. Even though he said he wasn’t going to come after them, Englehorn intervenes and rescues the film crew and they manage to get back onboard the ship.

The island natives prove to be restless.

But before they can get underway, a native sneaks onto the ship and kidnaps Ann and before she knows it, the natives have offered her as a sacrifice to King Kong, a 25-foot-tall gorilla. Jack notices Ann's disappearance, and the crew returns to the island. But before they get there, Kong has appeared and fled with Ann into the jungle. Carl manages to catch a glimpse of Kong and becomes determined to capture him on film.

Though initially terrified of her captor, Ann manages to avoid the fate of the other sacrifices by winning Kong over with her juggling and dancing skills. Ann also begins to grasp Kong's intelligence and capacity for emotion.

Englehorn organizes a rescue party, led by his first mate Benjamin "Ben" Hayes (Evan Parke) and Jack, with the film crew trailing behind. While looking for Ann, the party gets caught between a herd of Apatosaurus and a pack of Utahraptor-like Venatosaurus saevidicus hunting them. In the stampede that follows, several members of the rescue party are killed. Freaked out, Baxter leaves the party and returns to the ship.

First mate Benjamin "Ben" Hayes (Evan Parke) becomes a victim of Kong.

The remaining members of the party continue through the jungle when Kong attacks. As they try to make their escape across a fallen log bridge, Kong makes several of them fall into a ravine, resulting in Hayes' death and Carl losing his camera.

Kong Rescues Ann from three theropod dinosaurs.

Kong returns to Ann and saves her from three theropod dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex-like Vastatosaurus rex, before taking her to his lair in the mountains.

Kong takes Ann to his mountain lair.

The remaining rescue party is attacked by giant insects in the ravine and rescued by Baxter, who has returned with Englehorn. Separated from the rest of the party, Jack continues searching for Ann.

Lumpy (Andy Serkis) about to be devoured.

Meanwhile, Carl decides to capture Kong and draws Englehorn into his plans.

Jack manages to find Kong's lair. Both Kong and Ann are asleep. When he tries to get Ann away, Jack inadvertently wakes Kong, provoking a swarm of large bat-like creatures to attack. As Kong fights them off, Ann and Jack manage to escape.

The newly rescued Ann doesn't like what Denham intends to do to Kong.

They arrive at the wall with Kong pursuing them and Ann becomes distraught by what Carl plans to do. Kong bursts through the gate to get Ann back. As they hurry back to the beach, Kong chases them, killing several sailors, but is finally subdued when Carl knocks him out with chloroform.

Denham mounts a Broadway show featuring Kong.

Fast forward to New York City. Denham is about to present "Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World" on Broadway. The show promises Ann Darrow but she has backed out of the show and has apparently lost contact with Jack as well.

Instead of attending Denham's show, Jack plans to attend his own play.

Instead of appearing in Denham’s show, she’s taken a job as an anonymous chorus girl. Meanwhile, the play Jack has written for her is being staged with another actress playing the part he’d written for her. Curious, Jack leaves his own production and goes to the theater where Denham’s show is premiering. He is somewhat dismayed to hear Carl introduce Baxter as the one who rescued Ann.

Kong is not chained down as well as they thought.

Meanwhile, Kong, who is supposedly subdued and chained, becomes agitated when he realizes the woman playing Ann’s part is not, in fact, Ann. Kong manages to break free and wreck the theater. When he sees Jack in the balcony, Kong tries to grab him but Jack manages to escape.

Out on the street, Kong goes looking for Ann.

Out on the street, Kong searches for Ann and chases Jack, who tries to ram him with a taxi cab before being knocked unconscious.

Kong and Ann take a respite ice-skating in Central Park.

Meanwhile, Ann has heard the commotion and comes out into the street to see what is going on. There, she encounters Kong and tries to calm him. Kong grabs Ann. Alone, the two share a moment on a frozen pond in Central Park until the U.S. Army arrives and attacks. Still, with Ann in his hand, Kong tries to get to safety by climbing to the top of the Empire State Building.

Kong takes Ann to the top of the Empire State Building.

Night quickly (and I mean quickly) becomes morning and six Navy planes appear in the sky. Jack has followed Kong and Ann and runs through the guards into the building and manages to get on the elevator before they can stop him.

Airplanes attack Kong in the morning light.

The planes attack and while he manages to down three of them, Kong is mortally wounded from their gunfire. He gazes at Ann one last time before he dies from his wounds and his lifeless body falls to the street below.

Kong wounded and about to fall.

As Jack reaches the top of the building and comforts Ann, civilians, policemen, and soldiers gather around Kong's corpse in the street, one bystander commenting the airplanes got him. Carl makes his way through the crowd, takes one last look at Kong, and says, "It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

Released on December 15, 2005, King Kong would make $562.3 million at the worldwide box office, making it on the top five highest-grossing films from the year it was released. In addition, the film received fairly good reviews though somewhat tempered. Todd McCarty, writing for Variety, called the film “a stupendous adventure that maximizes, and sometimes oversells, its dazzling wares.”

A.O. Scott in The New York Times, notes “The sheer audacious novelty of the first King Kong is not something that can be replicated, but in throwing every available imaginative and technological resource into the effort, Mr. Jackson comes pretty close.”

Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert was even more effusive, “The movie more or less faithfully follows the outlines of the original film, but this fundamental adjustment in the relationship between the beauty and the beast gives it heart, a quality the earlier film was lacking. Yes, Kong in 1933 cares for his captive, but she doesn't care so much for him. Kong was always misunderstood, but in the 2005 film, there is someone who knows it.” He further adds “King Kong is a magnificent entertainment. It is like the flowering of all the possibilities in the original classic film. Computers are used not merely to create special effects, but also to create style and beauty, to find a look for the film that fits its story. And the characters are not cardboard heroes or villains seen in stark outline, but quirky individuals with personalities.”

I will admit when I first saw the film in theaters, I was struck at how bloated the production was. Not only in length, at least a third longer than the original film, it also boasts a larger cast that actually works against it. Rather than three main characters to worry about, or four if you’re counting Kong, we now have an ensemble cast, all with some backstory, most of which is really unnecessary for the plot.

It seems that when Peter Jackson saw the film, there must have been changes he thought the film needed, like humanizing Kong and adding a lot of unnecessary gore, accentuating the danger but mostly to show off the special effects.

The special effects are bigger and more realistic than the original or of the remake but again, it leads to things that have nothing to do with the plot. What had been a prehistoric monster in the original film has turned into a minor Jurassic Park with its herds of dinosaurs.

But as if that wasn’t bad enough, there are the spiders and the big insects and the bats, all of which are well-crafted and shot but have nothing to do with the plot at all and only increase the run time of the film. It is a little bit like Jackson is over enamored with what can be done rather than worrying about how it fits in with the story.

And then there is the silly. Not only does Ann Darrow try to win over the big ape with some pratfalls and juggling, there is the whole sequence in Central Park with Kong and Ann performing their own private Ice-Capades. While that might be sentimental to some it seems out of place. It’s not unlike films or TV shows when couples trying to elude detection stop and have that heartfelt talk. Maybe under a different circumstance, it might be appropriate but when it is shown where it is it comes off as meaningless filler.

Only a handful of characters make the transition from the original to this version of the story. Ann, Denham, and Captain Englehorn make it intact. While John Driscoll is in both versions, he’s gone from Englehorn’s First Mate in the original film to Jack Driscoll, playwright, in this remake.

The one good thing the remake does is to give Ann Darrow a backstory. You get a real sense of her desperation. She is a talented woman with no place to perform and an empty stomach. It becomes more obvious why she would let herself be talked into going on a sea journey with a boat full of men.

Naomi Watts is good in the role of Ann. Rather than be fearful the way Fay Wray and Jessica Lange were of Kong, she seems to have found her soulmate in the big hairy ape. Unlike her predecessors, her character and Kong don’t really have that vaguely sexual aspect to their relationship. They connect on a more cerebral level. Off the island, she is no longer really afraid of the beast and is even somewhat protective of him; she does try in vain to stop the planes from shooting him.

Jack Black is good as Denham. I’ve read where he plays the character a lot like Orson Welles but he really isn’t all that far from the character Robert Armstrong plays. What he adds is personality to the role that separates his portrayal from Armstrong’s. He doesn’t really disappear into the character; I don’t know if he ever does but he is a hard actor not to like.

The other main human character is Jack Driscoll and Adrien Brody does a good job with the part, even though his character is not in the original Kong. It almost seems a little awkward when he goes up to the top of the Empire State Building to “rescue” Ann. I don’t get the feeling that they’re going to end up together long-term. If risking his life to save her on the Island wasn’t enough to cement their love, one has to wonder if showing up late will really win her over. Still, their ending seems better than the rather disappointing ending to the 1976 version.

Of course, no review of the film would be complete without mentioning Peter Jackson’s favorite actor, Andy Serkis, who seems to excel when he is being motion-captured. Just as he was Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he plays Kong. It is hard to judge his acting in the role when so much is CGI-ed over his performance. In this film, he also has a dual role, playing Lumpy, the ship’s cook, and one of the victims of a large worm that eats him during the rescue of Ann. He seems to be a fine actor motion-captured or acting live.

While the acting is good and the special effects are spectacular, an epic film from 1933 has been transformed into an epically long film 72 years later. I can’t say that the additional footage makes it a better film. The original King Kong may have its faults, but it is still the preferred version of the film. Bigger budgets and bigger effects don’t make the Peter Jackson version better than the original. Instead, it’s only longer and grosser.

Having reviewed the first three versions of the film, I would have to recommend the original over the other two. Again, to paraphrase what film critic Siskel said, what worked doesn’t need to be remade. And the original King Kong didn’t need to be remade.

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