King Kong (2005): Peter Jackson’s Version of the 1933 Classic, Starring Naomie Watts

Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is twice as long but half as powerful as the 1933 original, one of the most memorable horror movies ever made. Overlong and diffuse, the new version is uneven in storytelling, pacing, and effects. Lacking the distinctive Jackson vision, “King Kong” is a popcorn movie par excellence, one that’s aggressively determined to entertain the mass public at all costs by delivering the basic goods proficiently and stirring emotions in a visceral way.

Watching this “Kong” is like witnessing American adventure cinema of the past two decades, since the move makes explicit references to “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Titanic,” to mention three seminal blockbusters. Part adventure, part horror, part disaster, part romance, “King Kong” is a hybrid of a movie, clearly made with an eye to the marketplace. The effort to please all demographics may be a necessity due to its $200 million plus budget and huge marketing expenditure.

Released right after the masterful “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it’s easy to notice that “King Kong” is not a particularly personal film, despite the fact that Jackson has been dreaming of remaking the original ever since he was a boy. Moreover, Unlike John Guillermin’s 1976 version, which differed radically, Jackson’s doesn’t take advantage of our knowledge of the 1933 classic and doesn’t go much beyond it, thematically. Instead, he seems satisfied to provide a simple, if lively special-effects entertainment that takes every aspect of the original and makes it bigger, longer, and overwrought.

Adhering closely to the Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s tale, Jackson sets his yarn in the Depression era, unlike the 1976 film, which was contemporary. Jackson and his writers have expanded the number of characters and added subplots that were not in either film (more about it later). Watching the three “King Kong” back to back (as I did over the past week) makes it clear that the most obvious differences among them are of generic focus and tonal mood.

The 1933 film was a nightmarish horror film that scared audiences and made them queasy about its bestial menace and intimations of romance. Guillermin’s remake took a more comedic-campy approach, stressing the absurdist love story between Beauty and the Beast. In contrast, Jackson’s take could be described as a romantic adventure trying to blend old and new elements in equal measure, but not always successfully.

A tale of two contrasting islands, the three-hour (sans credits) movie is roughly divided into four parts that are unequal in duration, quality, and intensity. The first, set in Manhattan, takes about 50 minutes, and is burdened with the task of introducing its various characters.

The story begins with Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a vaudeville actress who, like many other New Yorkers during the Depression, finds herself without the means to earn a living. Unwilling to compromise and allow herself to sink into a career in burlesque, she considers her limited options while aimlessly wandering the streets. Caught when stealing an apple from a vendor’s stall, she’s rescued by Carl Denham (Jack Black), an entrepreneurial-adventurer-filmmaker who is not stranger to theft, having lifted the only existing print of his recent, unfinished film from under the noses of his studio executives when they threaten to pull the completion funds.

Denham is under pressure to meet a deadline. By the end of the day, he has to get his crew onboard the Singapore-bound tramp steamer, the S.S. Venture, in hopes to complete his travelogue-actioner. Deceiving his cast and crew, Denham actually plans to go to the legendary Skull Island and capture the mysterious life there for what he’s certain would be his greatest picture to date.

The meeting with Ann proves prophetic since Denham’s leading lady has pulled out of the project the last moment, and he’s stuck with costumes made for a size-four lady, Ann’s size. Though starving, Ann is at first reluctant to sign on. What changes her mind is Denham’s promise that the script would be written by Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), her favorite, socially relevant playwright (a take on leftist playwright Clifford Odets).

Both the newly discovered Ann and the struggling Jack join Denham reluctantly. There’s a funny scene aboard the ship, in which Ann makes a fool of herself by mistaking a crewmember for Jack.

Joining the trio on the “moving picture ship” is a colorful gallery of characters that includes Captain Englehorn (German actor Thomas Kretschmann), the commander of the Venture who allows himself to be bribed and head for Skull Island, and Preston (Colin Hanks, Tom’s son), Denham’s put-upon assistant and unwitting moral compass, who attempts to keep his greedy boss in check and the production from spiraling out of control (an inside joke about Jackson’s escalating movie budgets).

Realizing that the basic plot is rather simple, Jackson adds various stories, some of which more engaging than others, though overall, they have the cumulative effect of distracting the audience from the main narrative thread of Beauty and the Beast. Most of these figures are arranged in couples or triangles. Hence, there’s the coming-of-age story of Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the youngest crew member, who’s reading “Heart of Darkness,” a premonition for the dangerous voyage he would soon experience. His mentor is first mate Hayes (Evan Parke), a vet traveler who keeps a watchful eye on Jimmy and serves as Englehorn’s conscience.

It takes about 70 minutes for King Kong to appear on screen, by which time we are more than ready for the adventure to begin. The depiction of the Native’s rituals is not particularly exciting, but once Kong abducts Ann the real movie—add fun—begins.

To create the widely divergent worlds of two disparate settings—the urban jungle of 1930s Manhattan and the primordial environment of Skull Island, home to a lost race and a myriad of formidable, not-extinct creatures, Jackson has gathered an unparalleled team of artisans, the majority of whom had worked with him on “Lord of the Rings,” including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, production designer Grant Major, film editor Jamie Selkirk, and the visual effects experts Richard Taylor and Joe Letteri.

Nonetheless, despite the elaborate and often dazzling special effects, the film’s best and most touchiung element is the more intimate relationship between Beauty and the Beast, with Jackson bringing forward both the romantic and erotic dimensions of that peculiar bond.

Though this “Kong” lacks the original’s intensity and primeval imager, its romantic angle is stronger than that of the 1933 and 1976 versions, in large part due to Naomi Watts, who gives the film’s most fully realized and only heartfelt performance.

Throughout, Jackson emphasizes the contradictory dualities of Kong’s character as monster/pet, menacing threat/victim, and social misfit/unrequited lover.

Earlier sequences on Skull Island, particularly the first, unexpected encounter with the natives, are scary and quite involving. But then, during the weakest part of the film, that lasts at least 45 minutes, Jackson indulges in endless battles and chases. Paying homage to the “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” film series, these sequences are clearly made for the young male viewers. We witness chase scenes between each of the human characters and some bizarre creatures, and there are brutal fights between Kong and the other residents of the Island.

That the other cast members are pale compared with Watts is a combined result of the writing, casting, and acting. With the exception of Ann, the characters are one-dimensional, pieced together out of bits of old and new. Comedian Jack Black, who’s miscast as the producer, gives the weakest performance. At least a dozen scenes begin with a close-up of Denham, and though dramatically different, they get the same kind of eye rolling and expression from Black. Fans of the original will be vastly disappointed with the way Black delivers two of the yarn’s best known lines, lines that have become part of movie lore.

The plot of this “Kong” lacks linear progression and, in the middle sections, it sometimes feels as if Jackson has forgotten his Beast, since he is absent from the screen for too long.

Fortunately, the film’s last reel, which goes back to Manhattan, where Kong is displayed on the stage of Radio City Music Hall as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” is good. The scene in which Kong stands bleeding and besieged at the top of the Empire State Building (in 1976, it was the World Trade Center) and Ann begs him to picke her so that he won’t be shot by the planes, is extremely touching. Opting to die as a hero rather than risk harming the life of Beauty, Kong assumes a sacrificial Christ-like attitude.

For better or worse, Jackson has changed the male figures completely. In 1933, Denham was an explorer-showman who made jungle pictures. The 1976 version was contemporary in setting, part of the then prevalent conspiracy film cycle. Hence, the film’s expedition to the Island is financed by Petrox, an oil company, and is headed by the villainous Fred (Charles Grodin), who convinces his bosses that he would make an oil strike. Fred is an out-and-out villain, a greedy capitalist. In Jackson’s version, there’s no corporate greed, just an obsessive madman serving his megalomaniac interests in making a spectacular picture by risking the lives of his entire team.

In 1976, Jack (played by Jeff Bridges as counter-cultural figure) is a university paleontologist who specializes in primates and sneaks on board as a stowaway. In the new film, Jack (Brody) is a fledgling idealistic writer who’s committed to the “Theater” and looks down on screenwriting and movies as a sellout, a way to make a quick buck.

In his direction, Jackson has made a couple of odd choices. He doesn’t show how Kong is carried back to Manhattan, which was in Guillermin’s picture but not in the original. The 1976 film contains a lyrical sequence in which the scarf of Ann’s character (named Dwan and played by Jessica Lange in her first film) drifts down to Kong, who’s in a cage, and later, she herself falls down into his prison. Knowing the pain of being a prisoner, Kong frees her and is grief-stricken when she leaves. It’s also a mistake not to show in detail how the wounded and besieged Kong falls down from the Empire State Building, since it follows an extremely tender scene between him and Ann.

Some of the requisite scenes, such as Kong tearing down an elevated train, or knocking down a helicopter with one arm, while holding Ann on the other, are in this version, but for some reason, are not as exciting as they were in 1933.

The movie gets cynical in the final segment, when Jackson shows the dead beast on the ground and how fame-seeking journalists, craving to be the first to photograph Kong, climb all over him.

The new film’s musical score is disappointingly schmaltzy. As is known, Howard Shore (who scored “Lord of the Rings”) was let go due to “creative differences” just one month prior to the film’s release and a new composer, James Newton Howard, was brought in. In the original, the best sequences had no dialogue and were accompanied by Max Steiner’s brilliant score, which was scarily shrieking, portending the impending doom. In this respect, Jackson follows the 1976 version, in which John Barry’s score is used in a more conventional way to heighten emotions and offer sweeping music to the big romantic sequences.

To be fair to Jackson, it’s important to note that the context in which the 1933 film was made and viewed was vastly different. For instance, both Radio City Musical Hall, where the mass panic occurs when Kong unchains himself, and the Empire State Building, the climax’s site, were brand new, having been inaugurated just months before the movie opened. In 1933, both buildings functioned as real and symbolic monuments, eliciting both exciting and fearful responses that are impossible to elicit from today’s more cynical viewers.

Though ideologically the 1933 “Kong” was a quintessential Depression-era picture, it was nonetheless ahead of its time in moral ambiguity and mixed signals. The earlier movie made the audience queasy, and encouraged contradictory reactions. On the one hand, the saga produced fear for the survival of society against the menacing threat, but on the other, it asked viewers to sympathize with Kong as a doomed creature and misfit, venting his rage and frustration at a troubled, increasingly inhuman society plagued with severe problems.

Fay Wray’s scream, one of the most frightening and surreal images in American film history, continues to haunt us 70 years later. In Jackson’s movie, Naomi Watts screams much more than Wray, yet her screams, even the first one, lack horror. Are we too jaded, having watched numerous screams in “Psycho” and other flicks

Jackson’s “King Kong” is big in size and effects, but considerably smaller in heart and soul. Rather strangely, the picture movie is choppier and more fractured than his previous efforts, all of which have relied on special effects. The whole movie seems pieced together of scraps rather than unified by the kind of singular vision that defined and elevated the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

For the Record

Running Time

The running time of the 1933 film is 100 minutes, of the 1976 remake, 135 minutes; and of Jackson’s version, 189 minutes!


The budget of the original was $800,000, of the 1976 film $24 million, and of the new one rumored to be $250 million

Kong Without Genitals

One of the few similarities among the three versions is that in all of them Kong has no visible genitals, though his urge is certainly carnal even if he can’s consummate it.

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