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See Monkey, Do Monkey

December 21st, 2005

I’m a bit late with my review of the King Kong remake, given that I saw the movie last Saturday. However, I did not want to allow it to go uncommented upon.

As expected, I enjoyed Kong a great deal, and I hope to see it again sometime this week while it’s still playing at the local art house. (Normally, one would not choose an art house to screen an epic such as this, but ours just happens to have a sound system powerful enough to make a grown man weep for joy.)

I do agree with those who criticize its length. While the extra running time allows for the characters to breathe and develop, I think it could accomplish the same and be 20 minutes shorter. Many scenes go on for a bit longer than necessary, and there’s an entirely extraneous subplot about a sailor named Jimmy that ultimately goes nowhere. That said, I also agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment that we’re only complaining about too much of a good thing, because that’s what King Kong is: a very good thing.

As with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson strays from the roller-coaster track to offer quiet moments of beauty, and imbues his characters with heart. With Kong, Jackson confirms that he really does know how to make an epic film which is more than bangs and crashes.

On the other hand, the roller-coaster is a helluva ride, particularly in the middle portion of the film: the excursion to Skull Island. (There’s a nice moment when Jack Black’s filmmaker character Carl Denham whispers the name of his destination; after all, the sailors might balk at going someplace named “Skull Island.”) And make no bones about it, Skull Island is the motherfucking scariest tract of land ever seen on movies. From its jagged rocks to its feral natives to its spider-filled chasms, Jackson shows that he’s forgotten nothing from his early days in splatter film. Tense as they were, the dinosaur chases had nothing on the scene in which Denham and crew discover the island’s human population.

The remake is at once very respectful of the original film yet willing to make improvements to its ’30s sensibilities. I enjoyed that one of the cheesier dialogue exchanges from Kong ’33 turned up here as part of Denham’s film-within-the-film, and that the politically-incorrect natives of days gone by were featured during the climatic Broadway stage show. The latter offered ironic commentary about not only the original Kong, but also the way in which show business trivialized non-whites during its early decades.

Other tributes to the King of old abound. One of the original gas bomb props can be seen alongside the Venture’s store of chloroform, and Max Steiner’s glorious, groundbreaking musical score accompanies the aforementioned stage show. Kong plays with the a dead dinosaur’s broken jaw just as his predecessor did. A fair amount of dialogue, most of it Denham’s, is reproduced verbatim from the old script.

I was originally uncertain about the casting of Jack Black, but ultimately I bought into him. He’s certainly good at portraying rolling-eyed mania, a necessary component for a filmmaker interested in nothing more than getting the shot. Black’s Denham is effective comic relief at first, and veers into sinister territory about two thirds into the story, yet he never becomes a stock villain.

Much has been written about Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, and that’s as it should be. She’s radiant and funny here, though it helps that she’s got good material. The script solves many of the problems with the original version of her character, giving her a real relationship with Kong and more humanity. While the special-effects used to create Kong are stunning, it’s Watts’ performance that ensures that we care about him.

In the end, the new Kong isn’t the milestone that was the 1933 film, but it’s a superlative experience well worth a nine-dollar ticket.

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