Peter Jackson’s King Kong Was A Beautiful, Messy Tragedy

We revisit Peter Jackson's King Kong from 2005 and examine why it's an overlooked and unabashed tragedy in blockbuster clothing.

When Peter Jackson’s King Kong landed in theaters around Christmastime 2005, it was received by many eager fans and film journalists like the big guy in its title: the eighth wonder of the world. And yet, also like the press and publicists who found themselves crushed under the weight of the unimpressed ape, that reception quickly soured due to the enormity of it all.

In other words, it just was a little too long, wasn’t it? Actually, that’s being charitable since the theatrical cut for King Kong runs at 187 minutes (never mind the extended cut released on DVD the following year). Whereas Jackson won an Oscar for the equally long or longer Lord of the Rings films he shepherded to Hollywood and global box office glory, Kong’s epic breadth, which turned the original brisk 104-minute adventure into a would-be simian Ben-Hur, was met with polite applause… as well as a palpable sense of disappointment.

And in all honesty, I think the film desperately needed to reduce its runtime by at least 30 minutes, if not more. It’s probably why I hadn’t revisited the picture for about 10 years prior to the release of Kong: Skull Island. Nevertheless, the legacy of the running time around Jackson’s own King Kong adventure has mostly surpassed everything the filmmaker brought to the screen with his immensely personal opus.

For unlike the bloated and listless Hobbit films that only quintupled the issues the filmmaker manifested in Kong, his 2005 movie has almost been lost due to its reputation over the years, as if it too resided on the mysterious island from which Kong hails. Yet, if one makes the commitment to travel to that cinematic world, which can at times feel as long as an actual steam ship’s sojourn into the South Pacific, there is a hidden gem to be found here—a grand old movie that not only remakes Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 masterpiece, but reverse engineers it. It takes a classic and, like the best historical revisionism, recasts its victories with a sense of nostalgic defeat, slightly shifting its perspective from a piece of popcorn manifest destiny to a profound tragedy. Gracefully so.

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Whatever its issues, King Kong was a rarity in 2005 as a blockbuster that strived for art, and in 2017 it is downright foreign in its ambitions. For here is a film that makes an earnestly sincere tearjerker out of one of the great fantasies of fiction, and in doing so it’s built a movie that lasts. Or at least is certainly worth a second look.

From the very beginning, Hollywood has chased the dream of giant apes into the foliage of Skull Island following the original King Kong’s majestic opening. Merian C. Cooper himself more or less attempted to remake King Kong twice, first with the dull sequel Son of Kong (also released as a quickie in 1933) and then with the sweet in its own right Mighty Joe Young (1949). There were also the infamous Toho films, including King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). But the less said about those the better.

The most infamous retread though is of course Dino De Laurentiis’ legendary misfire, King Kong (1976). A film that gracelessly and with maximum callowness threw Cooper’s joyful fairy tale into a crass approximation of 1970s American life, it is most remembered for being the picture where Jeff Bridges in long hippy locks attempts to prevent Rick Baker in a gorilla suit from fondling Jessica Lange atop the World Trade Center. It hits many of the same beats as the 1933 classic but is totally oblivious as to what those narrative elements were supposed to mean—or how to transport them to modern times without making a fool out of everyone involved.

In many ways, Peter Jackson’s 2005 effort is a reaction to just how awful the 1976 film is, and not just because he makes his King Kong a period piece set in ’33. Rather, Jackson recognized that every child born in the last 90 years, at least in Western culture, has seen the original King Kong. Probably more than once. Either way, it leaves an impression. So just rehashing the same beats, whether in the present, ‘30s, or perhaps a Vietnam-colored 1973 setting, is a fool’s errand.

Watch King Kong (2005) on Amazon

But on the other hand, there is something to be gained by the fact that all audience members know the story of Kong and the woman he loved, and how it ends for both atop the Empire State Building, and then beneath it after a 1500-foot drop. Instead of just retracing those steps, Jackson sought to reconfigure them as a build-up of more than excitement; it’s a sad crescendo filled with melancholy. The spectacle WETA constructed for the special effects are extreme in King Kong, but they’re in service to a film that really does take the “Beauty and the Beast” analogy to heart and makes a full-blown love story in the process.

Like the best modern interpretations of Shakespeare or the other classic narratives, Jackson uses audience familiarity to his advantage and paints a distinct and singular account of operatic sorrow about a gorilla that couldn’t fly.

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To achieve this effect, the filmmaker and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens liberally mine Merian Cooper’s classic for setting, story structure, and even exact lines of dialogue—usually uttered in the hacky film within a film that director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is making where characters speak exactly like those from the 1933 Kong. But how it is all configured is the difference between an original pop song and a stripped down, acoustic cover being implemented by the torch jazz combo.

In addition to length, changes include the introduction of Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll, who is now less crusty sailor and more of a tortured, nebbish Arthur Miller-inspired playwright, who when he isn’t writing scripts is participating in the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project (where like Miller and other artists who participated in the often political and government-sponsored theater, Driscoll is even accused of being a Bolshevik by his contemporaries). Also like Miller, he has a weakness for blonde leading ladies.

Indeed, the real strength of the picture comes from Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, previously Fay Wray’s iconic damsel in distress. Watts’ Ann is also frequently in distress at one time or another, whether it be from hungry V-Rexes (the film’s version of a T. Rex), giant vampire bats, or when she’s being kidnapped by Skull Island natives who even in Jackson’s horror movie affectation (he dehumanizes them by giving them red eyes and supernatural abilities) might still be seen as problematic.

But in spite of needing to be rescued (a lot), Watts’ Ann is a fully realized character in her courtship with Kong. It is also as much Jackson’s touch for genuine sentiment as his display of dizzying special effects wizardry that gives these two room to breathe.

The original Ann Darrow played by Wray was also a victim of the Great Depression, which is implicitly understood for her contemporary 1933 audiences who wouldn’t need any explanation for why a single New York City girl living alone would need to steal an apple in her first scene. But for 21st century audiences, Jackson really digs into the grave Depression environment that birthed the Kong fantasy. New York’s wealth and squalor are represented in equal measures during the movie’s effective opening montage, which cuts from animals wasting away in the Central Park Zoo to human lives that are just as decayed in Hoovervilles. While art deco skyscrapers rise up in the still nascent Manhattan skyline, evictions are being served and soup lines are curving around the block.

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In this context, Ann is introduced as a starving actor who is just as much into creating illusions of frivolity as Denham or the real-life Cooper: she’s a Vaudeville actress. But Vaudeville doesn’t pay, and out of real desperation, she is seduced by an obviously crooked film director, whose subtlety is even less existent in the broad and probably miscast boastfulness of Jack Black. But he’s right when he says, “You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met, you’re going to make them weep.” She doesn’t see the tragedy in her own life; she’s a comedienne, dammit. But we the audience already know her fate, and sense the foreboding doom, of at least her happiness if not her life, that is imminent.

Her relationship with Jack is somewhat underserved by the film’s indulgent running time. After all, she and Brody spend so many scenes apart after she is kidnapped from the ship in the second act that viewers tend to forget about their romance by the time they’re standing on the Empire State Building at the end. Nonetheless, Jack isn’t her real soulmate; Kong is.

Realized with still fairly impressive motion-capture technology, Andy Serkis gives a tour de force as Kong. The character isn’t as hammy as Gollum, or as much of a layered showcase as Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes movies, but Serkis’ Kong is still a fully realized character. Previous films sympathized with the monster, however Jackson and Serkis don’t see him as a monster at all. Kong is an animal or even a person with a visible soul. Ann Darrow can see it, and more impressively, so can viewers in spite of the fact that he is both a giant gorilla and a computer animated one at that.

This is highlighted by the visual of Kong walking on his knuckles, as opposed to being the bipedal creation seen in all other versions. Like real apes, he is a creature of the earth, not a monster-maker’s workshop. He also doesn’t just view Ann as an object or as a plaything to be abused in the grimmest Joseph Conrad-esque nightmare. While his island might still be a Victorian fantasy of a lost world, he is himself a proud beast and the last of his kind. There is a sense of ecological sorrow to Kong’s lonely existence, and his connection to Ann is one of two marginalized and forgotten creatures coming to understand the other’s emptiness.

This connection of empathy and respect is what allows 2005’s Kong to power through its many problems and lets the third act stand so sharply apart from other takes on the Beauty and the Beast motif. Initially, Naomi Watts is required to offer her best attempt at matching Fay Wray’s glass-shattering scream, but by the time the story returns to New York, she is done screeching. Ann is not quietly pliant to the plot’s machinations. She refuses to appear in Denham’s ghastly and tasteless revue in which a defeated and abused Kong is tormented on a Broadway stage for the elite’s entertainment. She’d rather be a chorus girl off-Broadway.

Similarly when Kong does escape, his bloodlust for his favorite blonde is satiated not by kidnapping Ann again, but by her choosing to meet him in the streets. She calms the wild animal and allows herself to be taken and befriended by a creature that audiences have always pitied, but that no onscreen character before has ever bothered to give a second thought. These moments between Watts and Serkis have an authenticity that allows the third act to play every bit as sad as the original 1933 film, only now we are not watching it from the perspective of the airplane pilots who boldly took Denham’s suggestion to “save” Ann by firing rickety machine guns at her on the roof of the world.

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No, we watch the impending doom from Kong and Ann’s vantage point, and the same ending is given a new resonance as an adventure story realizes its true operatic pathos. Seventy years after Kong first fell off the tower on 34th Street, he tumbles again in a picture that fully reframes his story as more than Beauty and the Beast—it’s West Side Story set 20 years earlier and 30 blocks down.

This cathartic through-line that embraces audience expectation with an unexpected level of understanding for why we’ve always gravitated toward the big guy’s side is what allows the film’s many bombastic and delightful action sequences to sing. Of special note is the one-time Jackson’s overindulgence is just right: He has Kong fight three V-Rexes, including by swinging with them in vines, in a seven-minute stunner. It’s so over-the-top and playfully primal in its entertainment value that it pummels the viewer into dazed, giddy submission.

Other highlights of similar dexterity are how the Empire State Building death scene is framed, as well as Kong demolishing FDR-era Times Square with gusto. And perhaps no sequence is as memorable as when Jackson revisits a concept that Merian Cooper abandoned: Jack and the would-be rescuers falling into an insect pit. The sight of Andy Serkis, in the flesh in the role of Lumpy, getting consumed by an army of leeches is perfect nightmare fuel. Of course, even the action sequences are in excess in King Kong. For instance, there’s the superfluous scene of raptors chasing a herd of brontosauruses through a ravine that’s as unnecessary as the green screen work appears unfinished in its many close-ups. And with so many of these long VFX showcases to come, the fact the film also shoehorns in a tedious scene of the humans’ ship crashing along Skull Island’s shores only serves to pad the running time, not our suspense.

So yes, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is flawed by its own excess. Too many scenes of the filmmakers making an ultimately abandoned film within a film, too many action sequences, and too many subplots, including an entirely unresolved one between supporting characters Evan Parke and Jamie Bell that could’ve been cut out, taking 15 minutes right off the top, that nobody would’ve missed.

Watch King Kong (1933) on Amazon

Still, there is something alluring about the movie’s ambition and overall quality. Here is an unabashed big movie that takes the same kind of long-winded and ginger detours of 1950s epics, if not their ‘30s predecessors. There might be too much build-up, but the sustained sense of growing dread as Denham first spots Skull Island in the darkness, or in the crew’s apprehension to why there is a wall running the length of the shore, shows a preference for pacing and delayed gratification that is entirely absent in modern blockbusters.

In fact, King Kong’s other great strength is despite its modern revisions, it is hopelessly old fashioned. The film waits patiently to show Kong, and even when he appears, the picture takes its time still to reveal him visually, delaying the joy until he is introduced as a real character enjoying, of all things, a deep belly-laugh while Ann performs Vaudeville pratfalls. It takes a definite degree of patience to embark on this cinematic journey, and to overlook the many imperfections along the way, but it also rewards viewers with a movie that has patience for character, theme, and classical sensibilities, including the tragic sensation of finality.

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Kong: Skull Island is entirely amusing and worth entering for moviegoers who love nothing more than the sight of monsters duking it out. Set in the early ‘70s and in the shadow of Vietnam, Skull Island is somehow still surprisingly light on its feet, and in its head, offering plenty of visual razzle dazzle as it rushes through its brisk running time with nary the words “beauty and the beast” ever mentioned. It also sets up for multiple sequels. Thus it’s a product of the current studio system.

Jackson made a drama that is a throwback to several past eras, as well as a creature that is all its own. And I suspect this beast will still tower over any kaiju or giant monster movie that will follow it for some time to come.