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Don’t Be Alarmed, Ladies And Gentlemen! Those Chains Are Made Of Chrome Steel!

December 15th, 2005

The above quotation is one of my favorite lines of movie dialogue, as spoken by impresario Carl Denham in the 1933 version of King Kong. It’s memorable not only for Denham’s misguided faith in the strength of chrome steel, but also because, unlike Carl, we the audience know that all giant monkey hell is about to break loose.

As is inescapable to anyone who possesses at least three of the five senses, director Peter Jackson’s Kong remake opened yesterday. Amazingly, I have not seen it yet, and don’t expect to until Saturday, due to the arrival of an out-of-town visitor who’s staying with us. (Nice timing, Dave!) It’s a testament to the power of my friendship with Dave that I did not abandon him last night for some hot monkey action, though as I’ve pointed out, things might’ve been different had it been a new Star Wars film.

I’m very much looking forward to Jackson’s vision, as all indications suggest that he will do the film justice. I’m a bit concerned about its three-hour running time, nearly twice the length of the original. Still, it appears that the extra time will be spent fleshing out the human characters, which were largely ciphers in the ’33 original.

One of the aspects of this new Kong that I find most intriguing is Jackson’s approach to dinosaur-infested Skull Island. He ignored the cliche of “lands that time forgot,” in which everything appears as it would’ve during the Mesozoic Era. On Skull Island, evolution has continued onward for the intervening 65 million years, allowing the effects crew to populate the place with all manner of fanciful creations. I like this for two reasons: first, because it sidesteps the issue that modern movie audiences are all too familiar with realistic dinosaurs, courtesy Jurassic Park; second, because it allows Jackson to indulge his penchant for old-fashioned, scientifically-dubious movie monsters.

The other big change from the ’33 Kong is that this time there’s a real relationship between the big monkey and the girl in his paw. While one could argue that the original film itself is sympathetic to Kong, it’s worth pointing out that none of the characters, including and especially Ann Darrow, show the slightest bit of concern over the capture, exploitation and death of the noble creature.

For all the criticism levelled at the ’76 remake with Jessica Lange–a film whose faults have been greatly and unfairly magnified over the years–one thing it got right was that the human characters interacted with Kong on a personal level. When he took his fatal plunge from the World Trade Center, it wasn’t just the audience who felt something.

The original Kong was the first special-effects blockbuster epic. I recently had the opportunity to see it again on the big screen, and was surprised how large it loomed, and how modern it felt in terms of pacing. (Granted, the sexism, racism and characterization were all pure ’30s.) It’s a truly great film, even though there are moments when it’s not a terribly good film.

Yet, despite my love for the original and my appreciation of the ’70s version, I’m not at all upset by the prospect of another remake. Even if Jackson’s film is as good as I suspect, I don’t think that it can do anything to hurt the reputation and significance of the 1933 Kong.

One great thing about the new Kong is that movie studios have dredged their vaults for anything Kong-like. Hence, we’re seeing DVD releases of the ’60s animated series, the Japanese monster flicks King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, and even the British rip-off Konga.

King Kong Escapes is one of my favorite Japanese kaiju films. It was co-produced by Rankin/Bass, creators of animated holiday specials such as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as a tie-in to the aforementioned animated series.

The story involves an evil scientist, Dr. Who (no relation…I think), who plots to mine a tremendously radioactive ore using his robotic copy of the original Kong. Unfortunately, the intense radiation fries the robot ape, which means that Plan B is to kidnap the real Kong.

King Kong Escapes is pure, delirious fun. In the American version, Dr. Who is voiced by the mellifluous Paul Frees, best known as Bullwinkle’s nemesis Boris Badenov, as well as the “Ghost Host” of Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” ride. The slinky spy Madame X is played by Mie Hama, who was Kissy Suzuki in the James Bond chapter You Only Live Twice. There’s some especially good giant monster action, and the suits for both Mechani-Kong and the dinosaur Gorosaurus (who later appeared in the Godzilla epic Destroy All Monsters) are among Toho Studios’ best.

Kong himself, unfortunately, is not one of their better efforts. While they used a different suit from that seen in King Kong vs. Godzilla, it’s equally mangy and goofy. How is it that the Japanese can build such wonderful devices, but can’t design a decent gorilla suit?

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