King Kong was a box office success but most movie goers came away distinctly nonplussed. Jayne Nelson attempts to defend the much-maligned Eighth Blunder of the World
This is one 21st-century reboot that didn’t make audiences go ape. While some did love it – and it was a moderate box-office success – others deemed it a indulgent waste of time. But is really all that bad?
Case for the prosecution: The original King Kong, released in 1933, is a bona fide celluloid classic. Anybody could have told you that a remake was a bad idea – just look at the disastrous 1976 version with Jessica Lange – but that didn’t stop Peter Jackson from ploughing ahead with his big-budget update once he’d finished throwing that ring into Mount Doom.
But did he do the original film justice? Did he heck! The King Kong we were given in 2005 was a mess: a film that was self-indulgent, over-long and in love with its own technology. It insulted the memory of the ’30s original.
Case for the defence: Wow, you really hate it, don’t you? But come on, Jackson’s King Kong isn’t that bad. It’s an entertaining adventure with a likeable cast, some truly spectacular setpieces and a central performance that helped to change cinema forever. Andy Serkis as Kong built on all the good work he’d done as Gollum, confirming beyond a shadow of a doubt that a CGI character could be a triumph (repairing all the damage done by Jar Jar Binks…). You can’t deny that Kong is magnificent – the great ape barely rings false during the film’s entire runtime.
Case for the prosecution: The prosecution must concede that point. Our concerns with King Kong aren’t with the eponymous beast, however (more the lack of him, to be honest – it seems like centuries pass before we get to see him). While it’s definitely laudable that you can see every hair move on his furry head, it takes more than cutting-edge FX to make a film worthwhile. It needs a plot that hangs together as more than a series of setpieces. That’s all King Kong is: one action sequence segueing into another. Criminally, the bits in between are tedious.
Case for the defence: But it’s the same story as the original, with only one or two tweaks! And may we just point out to the court that the ’30s King Kong relied heavily on its cutting-edge FX, too. The majority of people these days only remember it for its stop-motion effects, so brilliantly rendered by Willis O’Brien.
Case for the prosecution: But that’s the point! A film should be more than a collection of monsters fighting with each other using the latest cinematic technology – it should have a heart as well! With King Kong, that lies in the central relationship between girl and beast. The original gently implied that Kong was in love with Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow, but this one tries too hard to make that feeling mutual. There are too many moments in which Naomi Watts’ Ann simpers and giggles over Kong. They even go ice-skating, for pity’s sake. Get a room, guys!
Case for the defence: That scene has received a lot of stick over the years and yes, it may have been a little misjudged; Jackson has a soppy side and sometimes he can get carried away (although he’s certainly not as bad as someone like Steven Spielberg). However, if you watch it again you’ll note that it’s not as daft as you remember – it’s just a gentle moment before the big finalé, allowing you to take a breather. It’s not as though Kong straps on skates and dances to “Bolero”. Lighten up.
Case for the prosecution: He belly flops on the ice. On purpose.
Case for the defence: Oh, don’t be such a joyless misery guts. Look, Jackson worked hard to ensure that you felt something for Ann and Kong; you saw them bonding, which made the tragic finale all the more tear-jerking. It adds a lovely layer to the film that the original lacked – all Fay Wray’s Ann did was scream!
Case for the prosecution: But the scenes between Ann and Kong aren’t the only ones Jackson over-eggs. Take the journey to Skull Island, for instance. We’re introduced to the crew of the boat as though they’ll all be hugely important characters later on. Jamie Bell’s character gets a back-story and everything, but none of it amounts to a cent: it’s all just padding. It’s like one film stops and another one begins.
Case for the defence: It’s supposed to make you feel for them when they all start dying off. Clearly you have no empathy.
Case for the prosecution: It’s a waste of time! You don’t need to know that your average Star Trek red shirt was tragically orphaned at an early age, do you? It doesn’t matter! And then there’s Jack Black as Carl Denham. He spends the entire film mugging at the camera like he’s in the Three Stooges, even when people are dying all around him. He’s a comedian in the middle of a drama, but he never stops being a comedian. He’s always Jack Black, no matter what, and it brings you out of the action every time he speaks. Or, more commonly, gurns.
Case for the defence: Nonsense! There has to be some comedy in the film or it’s all doom and gloom! Black has a huge following and he brought lightness that may otherwise have been missing.
Case for the prosecution: Jackson may as well have cast Michael McIntyre as Hamlet. Such a misfire! Just watch the godawful “dinosaur stampede” scene and tell us he belongs there: it’s like he’s in an episode of Scooby-Doo. Although, to be fair, that entire sequence is one big cartoon anyway. If ever there was a setpiece that could have been excised for its sheer idiocy, this is the one. It’s dreadful.
Case for the defence: Your honour, the defence feels that the prosecution has said enough. Now it’s our turn in front of the court. First, may we just reiterate how brilliant Andy Serkis is as Kong? Naomi Watts deserves credit, too, for managing to “sell” her scenes with him when most of them were done through greenscreen.
But that’s not all. While we’ll allow that some CGI doesn’t work – such as the ill-advised dino stampede mentioned above and the pole-vaulting native stick men – just check this out:
A re-enactment of the original film’s T-rex versus Kong fight that is as believable and adrenaline-filled as O’Brien’s stop-motion version was to ’30s audiences. Look at that badass gorilla mofo defeat that dinosaur! It’s thrilling cinema, and you’re a fool if you can’t see it!
Case for the prosecution: …We will agree. Grudgingly.
Case for the defence: Then there’s the cinematography, which is amazing – particularly given that so much of the film is computer-generated. The jungles of Skull Island are realised with lush, steamy realism, and so is 1933 New York, rendered in exquisite detail. The climactic scene atop the Empire State Building is awash in glorious sunset golds (a perfect reimagining of the original, which couldn’t use such a trick). And the final fight which leaves Kong mortally wounded is also genuinely moving, given that Jackson worked so hard to set up the relationship between woman and ape.
The film is full of fond homages to the original and sensational makeovers to bring it fully into the 21st century; a tough task for any filmmaker, but Jackson and his team have managed it with grace, control and delicacy.
Case for the prosecution: Delicacy? Really? So having Kong fight off THREE T-rexes isn’t just showing off? It’s CGI porn!
Case for the defence: Why not? It’s a great fight and it’s wonderfully choreographed. At least you can figure out what’s going on, unlike in something like Transformers. It’s well-reasoned and exciting.
Case for the prosecution: Pah. Well-reasoned? This is a movie that has its human star spending the final act of the story being carted around a snowy, freezing New York in a flimsy dress without shivering once! Can you imagine how cold it must have been atop that skyscraper? Did she shudder? No!
Case for the defence: You’re really nitpicking now.
Case for the prosecution: Okay, yes, we’ll admit it. It’s because this film drives us up the wall. It’s too long, it’s full of its own importance and it’s illogical. Basically, it’s a filmmaker putting his own stamp on his favourite film for no other reason than to prove he can do it better.
Case for the defence: Phooey! It’s a filmmaker bringing a classic film to an audience who might never have bothered investigating it otherwise. How many people watched the original King Kong out of curiosity after seeing this one, eh? It’s a tribute, and one that was handled well.
Case for the prosecution: The prosecution must rest its case here. To sum up: “It was Jackson killed the beast.”