Monday, December 19, 2005

Film Review - King Kong (2005)

No one could have possibly imagined just a scant number of years ago that director Peter Jackson, remembered prior to 2001 for his low-budget horror pictures, would become the highest paid director in motion picture history? Or, more importantly, that he himself would be in charge of a nearly three-hundred million dollar budgeted major motion picture remake of the classic Merian C. Cooper monster movie, King Kong, from 1933? Peter Jackson would scarcely believe it himself if it were not for the fact that he is indeed living the dream. It is funny how things work out the way they do. A proper re-imagining of the famous stop-motion animation special effects extravaganza has been in the pipeline at Universal Pictures for quite some time, waiting for just the right script and the director to helm to come along. Sure, there was the Paramount Pictures take on King Kong in 1976. And while the film did manage to scrape ninety-million dollars worldwide into the kitty, the presence of Kong himself, basically makeup artist Rick Baker in a laughable monkey-suit, failed miserably to do the original justice in any sense of the word. Now, one-billion dollars in box office ticket sales and three Lord of the Rings films later, director Peter Jackson sets out to prove once more that nothing has ever nor will ever top nor equal the magnificence of Kong, the eighth wonder of the world!

The story for King Kong (2005) is undeniably reflective of the epic style of the 1933 original motion picture, a successful invocation of nostalgia on the part of director Peter Jackson who with this adaptation even surpasses the emotional intensity and high adrenaline rush of his Lord of the Rings series. With that said, King Kong regrettably has its fair share of flaws. The first one-third of the story is spent on bringing all the main characters of the film together onto the S.S. Venture destined for Skull Island. This portion of the picture is a bit slow to say the least but it allows audiences to become familiar with the personalities of the characters and set up the eventual confrontation with the dangers of Skull Island. The second section of the film, a majority of which take place on the island itself, is what truly makes up the movie. However it does stagger a bit as it draws closer to the final one-third of the picture leading the actions on screen to become repetitive and clichéd. The last one-third of the movie in which Kong as a captive is brought in chains to New York City and goes on a rampage in search of Ann, leading to the final confrontation on top of the famous Empire State Building, is unquestionably the worst part of the film, though far be it from a total wash. As soon as Kong is captured on Skull Island and brought to New York City, the drama and intensity of the film begin to seriously go downhill from there. Regardless, there are quite a number of memorable moments in this portion of the film including Kong sliding across the frozen river with Ann Darrow and Jack Black delivering the infamous line, “It was Beauty that killed the Beast”, which just leave the audience awe-struck. It feels as though Jackson rushes the events leading up to Kong’s death and his fall from the Empire State Building onto the street below which in effect severely diminishes the anticipation and the emotional anxiety that led up to this moment in the film.

Naomi Watts is positively delightful in the role of struggling actress Ann Darrow who is recruited by motion picture director/producer Carl Denham to star in his adventure film and is then captured by the natives of Skull Island to be offered as a sacrifice to Kong. Like Kong himself, we the audience are entranced with her attractive appearance and sympathize with her life and desires early in the picture. King Kong will likely open a lot of doors for Miss Watts which is well deserved for the range of emotions she exhibits in this film. It is to be expected that few, if any really, took the casting of comedian Jack Black as Carl Denham in the Peter Jackson remake of the classic monster movie seriously at first glance, but he definitely silences his doubters. Black brings a certain amount of bitter humor and sarcasm to the role of a swaggering movie producer whose penchant for greatness is so excessive that he ends up destroying the very things he believed so strongly in. It is still a little difficult to accept Black within a dramatic role entirely but this should certainly help. He doesn’t make the transition from comedy to drama as easily as Adam Sandler did with Punch Drunk Love but certainly no Jim Carrey either. And Adrien Brody is alright as Jack Driscoll who seems to all but disappear in the final hour of the picture. He works well as the everyman’s hero and the foil to Bruce Baxter, the Hollywood action star who in reality is nothing more then a coward.

However, the best performance in the film is given by Andy Serkis. Not for his role as Cookie, the cook of the S.S. Venture whose demise on Skull Island is particularly gruesome to witness, but rather for his behind-the-scenes portrayal of Kong himself. What was done for Kong was similar to what Serkis did for the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series. He was strapped with a special suit with sensors attached in specific places in order to capture not only his movements but also his facial expressions. Besides being one of the most realistic and distinguished computer animated creations in recent memory, Kong is furthermore one of the most emotionally grappling characters in the film, filling you with terror and excitement one moment and the next having at the verge of tears. Serkis simply does a positively phenomenal job at retaining Kong’s wild natural instincts early on in the picture while at the same time slowly integrating subtle human-like characteristics into the role such as when Kong throws a temper tantrum like a little child when Ann refuses to amuse him any longer after he has knocked her down several times.

Overall, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is truly a rare motion picture event that can honestly be defined as an epic in every capacity of the word. As was the case with the original, King Kong is far more then a monster movie. From beginning to end, Kong dazzles and amazes you. Terrifying, entrancing, and saddening, Jackson’s reinvention of the classic 1933 film is one of the few remakes in recent Hollywood memory to actually do justice to its predecessor and in some areas even surpass it. This said however there do appear to be some issues with the film. The source of these problems may reside with director Peter Jackson’s success following the lucrative Lord of the Rings trilogy and how it may very well have gone to his head, albeit unintentionally and unconsciously of course. Prior to Lord of the Rings, Jackson worked with what he had and that was that. However, with King Kong, post-LOTR, he has a nearly indefinite budget and unlimited resources at his disposal. Jackson’s ability as a director to judge what should or should not be included in the finished product may have inadvertently been diminished because of this. He himself has admitted that there are hours of material not included in the final print of the movie which begs the question of what was left out of the film. There are scenes in King Kong, a majority of which appear in the second act of the movie, that are exhilarating but do nothing to advance either the plot or the message of the film.

Regardless, the action sequences and the impressive computer animation effects which accompany them are what truly make up this picture. The special effects, though not entirely pristine, are awe-inspiring. From the moment the characters set foot on Skull Island the action is nearly non-stop. This however can border on the excessive, particularly during the second portion of the movie more so right around the part where the crew of the S.S. Venture plummets down a chasm filled with man-eating giant insects. Anyhow, a majority of the action sequences do work effectively. One scene in particular in which Kong proceeds to toss Ann Darrow from paw to paw as he battles three tyrannosaurs at once will literally have you gasping for air and clutching the edge of your seat. It is just that intense. There are few additional sequences like that, but why spoil the surprise?

Parents with younger children eager to see Kong rampage his way through New York City however should strongly be cautioned because unlike the original 1933 King Kong film, or even a significant portion of Peter Jackson’s own Lord of the Rings franchise for that matter, the gore, violence, and intensity of this adaptation are set onto overdrive throughout the entire picture which can be quite unnerving for children after three hours spent in a darkened movie theatre. Let’s face it. Kong himself is an intimidating figure as it is. Throw in carnivorous tyrannosaurs, rampaging brontosauruses, creepy-crawly insects, gigantic spiders, man-eating razor-teeth sponges, and the ugliest, spectral natives you will ever lay eyes on and this is the stuff nightmares are made of. And, judging by the material in this film, there is enough to make them sleep with you in your bed for at least the next month.

And as much as composer James Newton Howard should be commended for taking up the arduous task of rescoring from scratch the entire three-hour motion picture event King Kong after Howard Shore and director Peter Jackson parted ways on the project, what he delivers in the film, albeit far from what can be described as a disaster, is nothing memorable. From the same man who brought us unforgettable scores from The Sixth Sense, Signs, and the NBC television drama ER, this is a pure disappointment, but not one which can entirely be placed, if at all, on his shoulders. Regardless of its fault, Peter Jackson successfully achieves his goal of bringing his own distinct vision to the King Kong legend while at the time paying reverence to the dignity and superior quality of the original motion picture on which the remake was based. Hollywood would do well in taking notes on this film as it demonstrates firmly how a remake should properly be made.

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)