by David Cornelius
To borrow from an old joke, Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is thirty minutes of spectacular entertainment spread out over a three hour movie.At times, this “Kong” is a thing of beauty, a showcase for Jackson’s storytelling genius. But these times are far too few to help the rest of the movie, which runs everywhere from being an uninspired but watchable adventure yarn to being an absolute snore. At three hours in length, Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (the same three behind “The Lord of the Rings”) go in all the wrong directions in their attempts to expand the 1933 monster classic into a “Titanic”-esque epic. I suppose can’t blame Jackson for wanting to turn his favorite movie into a sprawling giant packed with something for everyone. But I can blame him for doing it so poorly.
The main problem with this new “Kong” - the big one that trumps all others - is that in doubling the length of the original, it adds so much extra weight that the whole thing buckles. The 1933 film worked because of its simplicity (it was, after all, nothing but a jungle adventure with themes borrowed liberally from “The Lost World”). The new “Kong” is too complicated for its own good. Jackson keeps padding everything, but in all the wrong places. In the padding process, some subplots get forgotten, others get too overcooked. There’s just far more on screen than there needs to be, and nobody’s willing to tell Jackson that he needs to revisit the editing room.
(A quick note: from here on, this review will contain some spoilers, but only in the sense that I’ll assume everyone is familiar with the 1933 story. Yes, I’ll talk about the final scenes, but the finale should come as no surprise to anyone. Those of you unfamiliar with the original should stop reading and, better yet, run right out to a video store.)
Let’s take it from the top. The first hour is given to expanding the pre-Skull Island scenes. To argue that Jackson takes too long getting through this exposition is moot - after all, the original took its time to get going, and the 1976 version found its best stuff in the early scenes (all Grodin and Bridges, before Rick Baker showed up in that monkey suit). But Jackson stumbles in his approach. We open with a biting commentary on 1930s America, upbeat tunes delivered over images of soup lines and other signs of the Great Depression. So far, so good. But Jackson doesn’t keep with this through the rest of the film. It’s just a one-off comment to kick off his story, then it’s off to meet Ann Darrow, played here by the overrated Naomi Watts in yet another of her trying-to-outbland-Nicole-Kidman performances. Here, Ann is a struggling actress whose vaudeville house just closed down, and to make ends meet, she just might have to work in burlesque.
Meanwhile, director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is in trouble with his studio. He wants them to finance his trip to the South Pacific; they want to fire him and sell off his jungle footage on the cheap. He figures the best plan is to sneak out of town quickly before the captain of the chartered boat discovers the studio isn’t paying. Along the way, he discovers Ann, convincing her to be in his next picture; also along for the ride is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), whose character is here upgraded to the profession of famed playwright. (I suppose this upgrade is to give a more plausible excuse for Ann and Jack’s romance, or perhaps to give Jack more to do plot-wise, but if he were to be changed back into being the boat’s first mate, you’d hardly notice the difference. You’d lose two or three scenes, but that’s it. A pointless alteration.)
However, it’s not the bulky exposition that keeps these scenes from working. It’s the presentation. Jackson has decided to pepper his film with corny-sounding dialogue and hammy delivery to match (Jackson is so precise a filmmaker that I doubt the borderline campiness of the writing and acting was any accident). Punctuating such style is James Newton Howard’s score, which in these scenes comes with an overabundance of bouncy-bouncy “comedy” music, the kind of obnoxious sounds you hear whenever someone wants to remind you that boy, isn’t this kooky! It all combines to a failed experiment, really, as it’s not taken to any extremes (the tone comes and goes, with some actors playing it up and others not playing it at all), so one watches these scenes simply wondering if Watts’ crappiness is intentional or not. (Answer: it’s both.)
Also, in fleshing out these characters, Jackson and company do nothing to make them more interesting. Consider the characters in the original “Kong:” a handful of one-dimensional types, yes, but their simplicity was part of their charm. The rough hero, the damsel in distress, and best of all, the brash, impulsive filmmaker/adventurer. In slowly turning Denham into a exploitive, conniving slickster, Jackson hopes to add tragedy to the character (the bad man who learns the errors of his ways). But this isn’t followed through very well in the later scenes (Denham’s realizations come in the form of a few blank looks and a awkwardly delivered final line), and he turns out to be just some jerk who’s mildly charming in a few scenes but mostly unlikable - yet not unlikable enough to become a compelling movie character.
Ann, meanwhile, loses her own bit of tragedy in this upgrade. With all the backstory we’re shown about her talents on stage, we get the feeling that had she not gotten on that boat with Denham, she’d probably do just fine. Ann goes from being the personification of lost life in the Depression to being someone who just had a lousy day.
(Jack, however, is still quite blank, only this time, he’s a writer!)
To fill more time, the script gives us a handful of side characters - Denham’s nerdish assistant (Colin Hanks), a cocky movie star (Kyle Chandler), a wacky cook (Andy Serkis), a nervous shipmate (Jamie Bell) who enjoys reading “Heart of Darkness” in hopes of adding instant symbolism to the story, a gruff shipmate (Evan Parke) who gets to act as the nervous shipmate’s protector, etc. And then there’s the ship’s captain (Thomas Kretschmann), a guy who exists just so he can grumble a lot, disappear, and then reappear later just in time to rescue our heroes from Certain Doom. (The first time the captain shows up out of nowhere to save the day, it’s cute. The second time, it’s a cheap out.)
You’d think that with all of the attention given to these people in the first act, they would become very important in the rest of the film. But no, these folks simply come and go with no discernable rhythm. All that “Heart of Darkness” build-up goes to waste, as whatever kind of symbolic payoff one could imagine connecting Conrad’s story to this one is forgotten or ignored by Jackson. When these people do get offed, it’s no more important as when Extra Shipmate #14 gets killed.
And hey, no matter how many shipmates get killed, there are always ten more waiting for Kong to swat them aside, too. Wherever Kong goes, he’s always given the gift of ten shipmates to swat aside to prove his strength. Never mind the fact that after a while, seeing Kong swatting aside groups of extras gets monotonous to an extreme - does Jackson have no other trick in his book? The sheer thought of an infinite supply of swattable shipmates gets one yawning quite quickly.
(Side note: It’s interesting to note that the film’s potential saving grace - the spectacle - is as uneven as the story. Kong himself is a marvel of effects craftsmanship, looking, sounding, and behaving about as close to reality as film could possibly ever get. And in many shots, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography offers up some incredible visuals. Why, then, do other effects shots look so hopelessly fake, other images look muddy and drab? Half of this film is a marvel to watch. The other half, impossible to watch.)
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The movie picks up once the ship arrives at the island. We’re given a sequence in which the boat must navigate through dangerous fog and rock-ridden waters. It’s a doozy of a scene, a marvel of cinematic thrills and suspense, and it gives the viewer hope that the first act was all a goof, a clunky set-up on the way to better things.
Yet it is not to be. Once on the island, our heroes come face to face with some freaky natives - whose impact is watered down by Jackson’s dependence on ridiculous, overworked slo-mo shots. On their own, these screaming tribesfolk are a threat. But with the unnecessary bonus of processed slow motion close-ups at cocked angles (and overbearing music, too)? It’s a wasted moment.
Then again, the entire bit with the natives is wasted, because Jackson inexplicably forgets to mention the natives ever again. Once they kidnap Ann and offer her up to Kong, that’s all we see of them. Ever. Even the original had the sense to show them later in the film, during Kong’s rampage. Here, this massive threat to the heroes, this enormous plot point of a tribe, just up and vanishes. Where did they go? Are they hiding somewhere, hanging out with the missing “Heart of Darkness” payoff?
Anyway. Ann goes off with Kong, and here’s where Jackson tries his best to pump up the love story between beauty and the beast. Perhaps because he truly believes this is how the story should play out, or perhaps because he wants to attract some female ticket buyers, Jackson allows Ann to fall for Kong. Not romantically, as stated above, but in the sense that she sees him as her protector. (That, after all this, she’s perfectly fine with rushing to Jack’s arms when Kong dies is a plot point that betrays this entire storyline. “No! No! Don’t kill him! He’s just an ape!! What? You’ve killed him? Well, then, I suppose I’ll go back to this guy. Lucky for me!”)
The absolute worst part of the film comes in this segment. You might have heard about this scene: Kong has taken Ann back to his - well, “stoop” is as good a word as any for his little sit-down place. She’s scared, understandably. She sees that Kong reacts to her falling down. And so she breaks into her Charlie Chaplin-esque comedy/dance routine. Tumbling, pratfalls, the works. And Kong laughs, and they realize they’re good for each other, and all is happy on Skull Island. Meanwhile, audiences everywhere are screaming to themselves, “Am I watching Naomi Watts do a song-and-dance number in front of King Freaking Kong?” It’s such an out-of-left-field moment that any impact the scene intends to have is lost among the head scratching and eye rolling.
Meanwhile, the burly men of our story are busy making their way across the island in search of Ann. It’s here they stumble across dinosaurs and giant bugs and other creatures that would be enjoyable if Jackson could manage an ounce of restraint. Both a dino stampede and a bug attack are brilliant scenes - at first. But both keep going, and going, and going, until the sight of dozens of scrambling dinosaurs unbearably dull. By giving us too much, Jackson actually manages to do the impossible by taken all the fun out of dinosaurs.
Heck, even Kong’s capture goes on far longer than necessary. He’s captured, he gets loose, he rampages, and on, and on. By the time the big ape is finally beaten, we, as an audience, are spent, our desires to be thrilled doused by a filmmaker so eager to please that he gives us too much of everything, boring us along the way. And we still have the third act ahead of us.
The New York scenes, just like all before it, drag on too long, and the occasional thrill - one long shot of Kong climbing the Empire State Building is wondrous - is too little, too late. Despite the destruction Kong has to offer, we simply don’t care anymore. Oh, Kong’s swatting another dozen people? Yawn. For every neat-o scene of the ape tearing up a theater’s balcony, there’s a dopey scene like the appearance of Ann, backlit to look like Kong’s own little angel, appropriate music accompanying. Or the side bit where Ann and Kong escape to Central Park and find a quiet moment on the frozen pond; you can argue for or against the idiotic-but-charming ice skating - it’s the sheer length of this side note that kills it. Yet again, Jackson takes an appealing premise and beats it to death. At half its length, and with maybe two-thirds of the action that comes before it cut, this scene would work. As is, it’s yet another cumbersome timewaster.
Finally, we come to that last line, arguably the most famous last line in all of movie history: “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” As in the original, it comes from Denham. But here, this Denham is so unlikable that we don’t care if he has anything witty to say as a final comment. You’re even tempted to throw an “oh, shut up!” at him for bothering to say it. Worse, the line doesn’t fit the themes of the new movie at all - here, it was in fact the airplanes that kill him. Beauty was on his side this time. The remake’s defenders suggest that Denham is referring to Kong’s own beauty and humanity’s inability to understand it. If that’s what it takes to force yourself to like this movie, fine. But even if you stretch it, it’s obvious that the line is here by obligation only. There’s no energy behind it, no oomph, no punch. It’s just said with a great deal of inelegance, like a child doing a mandatory pledge of allegiance.There were times where I wanted desperately to like Jackson’s “King Kong.” The first half of the film kept acting like it was all heading somewhere great. But that somewhere great never arrives, and by the time this realization occurs (it’s right around the point where Watts starts dancing), one starts counting down the minutes (hours) until the closing credits. This “Kong” is a vanity project overloaded with embellishments that only seem necessary to the artist, like a bad singer (oh, let’s say, Mariah Carey) deciding the best way to improve a song is to hold out every note beyond its breaking point, maybe even throwing in a few flourishes, turning two words into a fifteen-syllable ride up and down the scales. With a movie like “King Kong,” simpler is better. I’m quite surprised that Peter Jackson couldn’t see that for himself.
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originally posted: 12/16/05 17:49:03