There are several good reasons why Peter Jackson should not have remade the 1933 classic tale of beauty and the beast, not least of which because it was his favorite movie as a child. The emotive power of the film’s original monster, made out of rubber and models by Willis O’Brien, was something Jackson had already matched in his stunning creation of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The original King Kong and Gollum are more than just three-dimensional characters in a sweeping narrative; they’re signposts in motion picture history. But Jackson’s remake of King Kong is a horse of a different color: an attempt to recreate lightning in a bottle, and perhaps improve on O’Brien’s “clunky” or “dated” rubber animations using the very technology that serviced Gollum so well (a combination of computer generated elements, motion capture on a live actor, and the digitally recreated acting of Andy Serkis, who was given screen credit as Gollum and now as Kong).
The 1933 King Kong was given a re-release on DVD, and in watching the movie we still somehow forget that the creature is an utter fabrication, even though it’s plain to the modern eye that the effects are crude. Yet that handmade quality is what gives the movie its heart and soul. When King Kong’s face registers love or fear, it was the result of an artist’s painstaking construction. That still translates, no matter how much technology has improved. To attempt to fix something that isn’t broken in the first place is a fool’s errand. Jackson, who proved long before his astonishing Lord of the Rings that he is one of the master fantasists of contemporary cinema, is no fool; but his very love and nostalgia for this beast is what kills the movie.
In terms of technique, this King Kong is as spectacular as The Lord of the Rings, particularly in Jackson’s reveal of Skull Island as a mammoth lost world encased in fog, mud, and decay. When the heroes arrive in the hopes of making a Hollywood movie and discover they’ve landed in a place where dinosaurs still walk the earth, Jackson doesn’t pull a Jurassic Park with super-slick looking, well-researched creatures, instead giving the monsters an expressionistic flourish of evil-looking eyes, larger-than-life monster teeth, and nightmarishly-wrong proportions. When the monsters chase after our heroes during the second hour of this three-hour-plus epic, there are moments where Jackson is at the top of his game. When spiders and squid monsters, insects and night creatures pop out of the caves, it’s like the squeam-inducing manipulation of a master showman.
It’s in the second hour that we get those best-of-Hollywood thrills and chills, but here is a perilously bloated first hour to get through, where the human characters are introduced and given comprehensive character development and backstory. Jackson sets up the Great Depression, the Hollywood studio system of that era, the struggles of a working actress, Ann Darrow (charming Naomi Watts, in the Fay Wray role), trying to make it in the Big Apple, the Orson Welles grandeur and pomp of an egotistical film director, Carl Denham (Jack Black), the yearning heart of a sensitive playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and half-a-dozen characters aboard the ship to Skull Island who are given their little “moments” because, after all, we have to get to know them before they’re devoured by dinosaurs or thrown off of mountainsides by the mighty Kong.
With Lord of the Rings there were a dozen major characters in a story that takes place on an operatic scale—a tale of war, castles, and kings. But King Kong is never meant to be taken on that level. For all its epic scope, it is a simple fairy tale about beauty and the beast, and that essence of the tale is beautiful and needs no bells and whistles. You feel like screaming, “Get to the God-damned island already!” When Jackson finally does, the politically correct will be gnawing off their arms about his treatment of the native islanders, who basically stand in as third-world, dark-skinned Uruk-Hai. Jackson tries to deflect the racism here by casting Jamaican actor Evan Parke as one of the first mates who discovers Skull Island, though having the only major black character be the one spouting moral platitudes before obviously being marked as one of Kong’s first victims feels like we’re stuck back in the casual prejudice of 1933, only now it’s stuck in the double standard of trying to apologize for itself while simultaneously following the genre rules established by Alien: the black guy’s gotta die. Any critic who tries to write about this aspect of King Kong has no choice but to harp on it or ignore it. Either way, it’s there.
During the final hour of King Kong, the mighty beast is captured and put on display in Times Square. This sequence might have paid off if the relationship between King Kong and Ann was established during that second hour in the jungle. Jackson handles action sequences splendidly, yet when it comes to having the computer-generated monster have chemistry with the human blonde, there is no relationship. Serkis’s pesonality, which came through so strong in Gollum (as deserving of an Academy Award nomination as John Hurt in The Elephant Man), doesn’t come through in Kong. There seems to be no point in casting an actor in a role so devoid of humanity; it feels like Kong’s emotions are as computer-generated as his hulking body. There’s no real acting on display. It’s an action character, not an emotional one. Jackson tries really, really hard to have his audience connect with Kong during sentimental long takes where the beast stares into computer-generated golden sunsets, but we never see the beast’s poetry, or its soul.
Watts valiantly tries to make that connection herself and there’s a strange sequence where her character, as a comedienne, does a little vaudeville act to amuse Kong. Getting a kick out of her shtick, he starts repeatedly knocking her over with his giant finger, chuckling in glee as she’s getting slowly battered. It shows a modern sensibility when Ann says, “No!” to Kong, refusing to be his victim. One would think this would create a sense of character development in Ann and Kong; it’s certainly a strong conceit. Still, it’s one painted in broad strokes, and since we never see Ann and Kong as more than objects in a large adventure story, it’s difficult to feel for them. Kong feels as fake as that CGI sunset.
Since their scenes together feel like boring pastiches of domestic life, when the third act arrives with Kong trashing New York City and Ann trying to soothe the savage beast, the famous conclusion atop the Empire State Building doesn’t have that “not a dry eye in the house” sense of tragedy Jackson so clearly aspires to (and which the original film genuinely achieved). As if he knew it needed bolstering, Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens add in a long, trying-too-hard-to-be-sparkling-cute sequence in Central Park where Kong and Ann spin around atop an icy lake. Jackson is a true-blue sentimentalist, and his early gore films derived much of their impact from his wonderment at the nature of true love amid all the splatter. But those low-budget features were ambitious for what they were; whereas this blockbuster is more like the arrogance of a guy who had a huge hit with Lord of the Rings and didn’t know when to quit.
Jackson remains one of the strongest cinematic craftsmen working today. There is some measure of awe inspired in this King Kong, and it’s funny to think that while the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings may have played slightly better than the shorter theatrical releases, this movie would be so much stronger in retracted form. More to the point, Jackson should consider scaling down his enterprise, letting a smaller story be told in a smaller way. Black’s character, the enthusiastic and obsessive filmmaker who values saving the rolls of film in his camera over the lives of his crew, says, “What is [the studio] going to do? Sue me? Huh? They can get in line. I’m not going to let them kill my film.” Jackson needed no interference. He successfully killed this beast himself.