King Kong: Size Matters, but Is Peter Jackson’s Remake Really Good?

 Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic King Kong  may be one of the most overestimated picture of the year; with few exceptions, it has received glowing reviews.

Jackson’s version is not bad, but for me it’s disappointing. As I pointed out in my review, Jackson’s remake is twice as long but half as powerful as the original, co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

Here are some reasons why Jackson’s over-elaborate special effects and pseudo-epic scope have nearly killed the joy, intensity, and primal fear of the first King Kong. The second version, in 1976, was never considered to be a match for the original, even though it has some merits.

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! Overlong, Jackson’s “King Kong” is almost necessarily diffuse and occasionally rambling to the point of losing the audience’s engagement.

Approach

This “King Kong” unfolds as a love story. The first movie was about an ape that desperately and passionately wanted a blonde, Ann Darrow, he couldn’t possess. Jackson’s version is about an impossible union between partners that are equally in love with each other. The first encounter notwithstanding, there is almost no resistance from Ann. Indeed, Ann learns to trust Kong, perhaps too much and too quickly. In New York, she doesn’t want to give him up –she’s left heartbroken atop the Empire State Building, where he meets his match and dies.

The Male Characters

Jackson has changed the male figures completely. In 1933, Denham was an explorer-showman who made jungle pictures and rehearses Ann on board by filming her screaming. The 1976 version was contemporary in setting and zeitgeist as part of a conspiracy film cycle. The film’s expedition to the Island was financed by Petrox, an oil company, and is headed by the villainous Fred (Charles Grodin), who has convinced his bosses that he would make an oil strike. He was out and out villain, a greedy. In Jackson’s version, there’s no corporate greed, just an obsessive madman serving his selfish interests.

In 1976, Jack (played by Jeff Bridges as counter-cultural figure) was 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 and way to make quick cash.

Jack Blake is Miscast

The film is marred by comedian Jack Black’s weak performance; he seems to be miscast. As in the original, Black plays greedy huckster-filmmaker Carl Denham who journeys by ship–and puts his entire crew at risk–to a mysterious island in the South Seas. Unfortunately, at least a dozen scenes begin with a close up of Black, and though dramatically different, they get the same kind of eye rolling and bland expression from Black. Moreover, 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 integral part of movie lore.

No Chemistry between Lovers

This time, the hero (played by Adrien Brody) is a frustrated playwright and screenwriter, who looks down at movies. Brody is not a conventional leading man; in any case, he receives less affection from Ann than the ape does. As played by Brody and Naomi Watts, there is not much chemistry between them. And since Kong almost immediately smites Ann, there is no romantic tension; the characters don’t really function as a romantic triangle. Thus the scenes in which Brody tries to rescue and even kidnap Ann from Kong lack resonance.

King Kong as a Universal Amusement Park

Watching this “Kong” is like witnessing American adventure cinema of the past two decades, with 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, trying to please all demographics, perhaps a necessity due to its $200 plus budget and huge marketing expenditure.

King Kong is not Scary:

The 1933 film was a nightmarish horror film that made audiences scared and queasy about its bestial menace and intimations of romance. Guillermin’s 1976 remake took a more comedic-campy approach and stressed the absurdist love story between Beauty and the Beast. In contrast, Jackson’s take could be described as a romantic adventure that tries to blend old and new elements in equal measure but not always successfully.

More importantly, this Kong is not really scary, though he is certainly stronger and more athletic than he was in the previous versions. Despite his heavy-limbed body, Kong is quicker, swinging his weight easily while running around. At one point, he’s wrestling with three creatures at once, while holding Ann steady.

Ann as Burlesque Acrobat

Assuming a Gillette Massena mode, in Feline’s “La Strata,” in which she performed with Anthony Quinn’s brute, Watts’ Ann, a hungry, unemployed, eager-to-perform vaudeville actress, tries to engage Kong’s attention by performing for him. Indeed, once she overcomes her fright, Ann tries to enchant Kong by putting on a show before his jungle throne overlooking a vast valley. With her likeably game quality, Ann does corny vaudeville exercises–cart wheeling, juggling. Amused and bemused, Kong responds with grunts and snorts.

The Islanders:

With their heavy make-up and gross gestures, the Islanders are frightening when first encountered. However, they look more like creatures form George Romero’s horror zombie flicks.

Skull Island

The fights and counter-fights at Skull Island seem to go on forever — well, at least one hour of the running time. We get to see a variety of monsters, giant cockroaches, face-grabbing worms, fighting Kong, each other, and the humans, too.

Cartoonish Look

Jackson’s vision of the Broadway and Times Square area at night, with square-backed yellow taxis and thousands light bulbs, is a campy cartoon-look dream of thirties urban life. In contrast, the imagery of the jungle landscapes is lush, perhaps too lush. Fresh from his triumph with “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jackson overwhelms the senses with his exuberant approach, which leads to numbness and even senselessness. Every element and scene is stretched to the max.

Schmaltzy Score

The musical score is disappointingly schmaltzy. Howard Shore was fired just one month prior to the film’s release, and replacement composer James Newton Howard gives it a conventionally rousing Hollywood treatment. In the original, the best sequences were silent, with do dialogue but with Max Steiner’s score, which shrieked and portends doom and gloom. In this respect, Jackson follows the 1976 version, in which John Barry’s score was used in a more conventional way to heighten the expected emotions with sweeping music in the romantic sequences.

Too Many Endings

As was clear in “The Lord of the Rings” series, particularly the last segment, Jackson has problems with ending (Spielberg does, too). ” The Return of the King” had at least five endings. Here, he simply doesn’t know when to stop a sequence.

Context is Everything

One of the most frightening and surreal images in American film history, Fay Wray’s scream continues to haunt us 70 years later. In Jackson’s movie, Watts’ Ann screams much more Wray, yet even her screams lack the primeval power. To be fair to Jackson, it’s important to note that the context in which the 1933 and 1976 films are made and viewed is vastly different. For instance, both Radio City Musical Hall, where the mass panic occurs when Kong unchains himself, and the Empire State Building, where the climax occurs, were brand new, having been inaugurated just months before the movie opened. Both buildings were real and symbolic monuments and as such elicited strong and authentic fearful responses that are impossible to elicit from today’s more cynical and disenchanted viewers.

Ideologically, the 1933 “Kong” was a quintessential Depression-era product, but the movie was ahead of its time in its moral ambiguity and mixed signals it sent to the audience. The 1933 movie made the audience queasy and uncomfortable, and it elicited contradictory reactions: On the one hand, it produced fear for the survival of society since the Empire State Building was brand new, but on the other, it encouraged viewers’ sympathy for Kong as a doomed creature venting its rage and frustrations at a troubled society with severe economic and political problems.

Non-Linear Plot

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 chapter, 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. When 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 embrace her so that the planes won’t shoot him, is extremely touching. Opting to die as a hero rather than risk harming the life of his Beauty, Kong assumes a sacrificial Christ-like attitude.

Move Over, Spielberg

Excess for excess’ Sake: Give the audience its money’s worth. Repeating what Spielberg has already accomplished in the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park” movie franchises, Jackson is determined to outdo and outshine Spielberg. It’s almost an obsession. You can hear Jackson saying: “Anything you can do I can do better.” The magazine E.W. has already labeled Jackson as the “new Spielberg.” The movie is heavy handed. Jackson pushes too hard and loses momentum over the three hours of the movie.

This “Kong” is high-powered entertainment, driven by need to top the previous achievement, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. A victim of hype, ambition, huge budget, and total artistic freedom, Jackson has made a monstrous spectacle whose only logic is that it must be bigger, more impressive, and more astonishing than what has been done before him by Spielberg or James Cameron (“Titantic”). He shows no restraint, no discipline, no respect for genre rules — in other words, everything and anything goes.

Conclusion

As a result of these factors, the overlong and diffuse new version is sharply uneven in storytelling, pacing, and effects. Lacking the distinctive Jackson vision, “King Kong” is a popcorn movie that’s aggressively determined to entertain the mass public at all costs by delivering the basic goods and involving viewers in mostly visceral way.

Coming 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. 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. Instead, he seems satisfied to provide simple if lively entertainment that takes every aspect of the original and makes it bigger, longer, and overwrought.

“King Kong” is big in size and effects, but is clunkier and choppier than Jackson’s previous movies, all of which have relied on special effects. The whole movie seems pieced together of scraps rather than unified by a singular vision, as was “The Lord of the Rings”