All hail the King Kong

by Glen Baity

How thrilled am I about King Kong? So thrilled I’m worried that people will start thinking I’m on Pete Jackson’s payroll, so incapable am I of shutting up about it. I’m also worried that people will point to my opinion of the film every time I bemoan the sorry state of cinematic originality (a weekly occurrence these days).

Yes, Kong is a remake, and what’s more, it’s a remake of a film that stands as an icon not only of particular epoch, but of the cinematic medium itself. There are a million arguments for why not to remake King Kong, but after I saw some early footage of the film, I confess to not giving a crap about any of them. Jackson, after all, is the man who spent his five pre-Kong years filming a trilogy a lot of people thought would be an out-and-out disaster. If you saw the culmination of that little project, perhaps you, like me, are of the opinion that Peter Jackson can do anything he damn well pleases from here on out.

Jackson’s Kong is as epic as any of the Lord of the Rings movies: the film unfolds in three acts, each serving its purpose, slowly ingratiating the viewer to the characters. In the first third, we meet Carl Denhem, a struggling filmmaker on the run from his investors. The suits want to shut down his film, hoping to salvage whatever may be left of their investment in the crippling wake of the Great Depression. In a fury, Denham boosts his footage and hastily loads his crew onto a ship bound for the last unexplored place on earth: Skull Island, a Galapagos-like refuge for thousands of cranky, razor-toothed behemoths, presided over by a monster the natives call Kong.

The latter two-thirds of the film contain the most memorable moments, mostly because Jackson doesn’t shrink away from his exposition. When the crew finally lands on Skull Island (about an hour into the film), the viewer has become well enough acquainted with the characters that their fates are a source of some concern. The meat of the film, therefore, is as emotionally rewarding as it is viscerally thrilling. It’s a triumph for Jackson and his co-writing team, (comprised of wife Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) and a revelation for those who only know Kong for his skyscraper-climbing, airplane-swatting exploits.

The good folks at the WETA workshop, who made Gollum such a lifelike presence in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, can add another terrific creation to their resume: Kong looks as real as any of the actors, and his face is capable of a thoroughly impressive range of emotion (tip of the hat to Andy Serkis, who helped model the facial expressions as well as the movement).

If most of the human performances in King Kong aren’t quite as interesting as Kong himself, everyone acquits themselves well enough. Jack Black captures the essence of his opportunistic filmmaker, and Adrien Brody’s romantic playwright benefits from some real chemistry with Naomi Watts, whose genuine affection for Kong burns at the center of this heartfelt film. You might think it’s impossible, but Jackson is a good enough storyteller to make you believe that a woman and a two-ton gorilla can fall in love. It might be too sentimental for some audiences in our cynical age, but I bought it completely. In much the same way Lord of the Rings is really just the story of Frodo, Sam and Gollum, King Kong is essentially the story of two souls who share a bond that is both outlandish and entirely mundane.

To Watts’ further credit, she’s able to drum up so much emotion in her almost completely nonverbal interactions with the CGI Kong ‘— when they were filming, she had only her imagination and Jackson’s prompting to tell her what she might be looking at, but witnessing the finished product, you’d never know it.

Some will be tempted to sneer at the film because it is yet another remake in a world awash in cheap, meaningless nostalgia. But to be fair, Jackson has credited the original film for inspiring him to make movies. I wonder if the minds behind the upcoming CHIPS movie can say that. In my eyes, the director’s palpable affection places Kong in a class wholly separate from the cheap cash-ins that pull in audiences based largely on brand-name recognition. Even if every third movie offered up for public consumption weren’t a remake, King Kong would be a venerable piece of movie magic.

The author wishes to acknowledge that his well-documented love of monkeys great and small had an indisputable effect on his reception of King Kong. To point out glaring instances of pro-monkey bias, e-mail Glen Baity at