King Kong (2005)

Rating:

SOMETHING WENT WRONG

Main Cast: Jack Black, Naomi Watts

Director: Peter Jackson

Sunset Boulevard sign by Mr Bullitt

My arrival will be stunning.

Normy and I have closed on our new home, Casa Maine, the old Norma Desmond mansion just off Sunset Boulevard.  Now comes the dreadful process of packing and moving the memories of a lifetime to new digs.  My darling little Korean friends have been working like crazy on getting everything boxed up and on the fleet of vans I have rented for the occasion but it is a tedious process and they haven’t even begun on the closets in the east wing.  I shudder to think what might appear when they start getting to the back of those.  I did have to get after Mr. Cho, one of my helpers who was busy trying on my ball gown from the last supper sequence of my musical movie version of Titus Andronicus, The King and Eye for an Eye.  The aqua tint chiffon with cerise accents just did not go with his skin tone.  I lent him a magenta Grizabella from my GlamourPuss gowns collection to take home instead, although I did have to caution him that he would have to take it off before running to the local Target for more packing tape.

HGTV felt like we needed a major musical sequence to finish off my run on Hooray for Hollywood House Hunters with Vicki Lester so I sat down with Mr. Carl, my choreographer, and Lulu Pigg to design something truly spectacular.  We decided on a sort of fantasia based around the theme to The Jeffersons where I tap out the front door of Chateau Maine, several attractive chorus boys in lime green lycra lift me to the top of a moving van and I do buck and wings up and down its roof while it negotiates the streets of Hollywood, The Miracle Mile, and then Sunset Boulevard to the new house.   On arrival, a whole bevy of chorines in silver sequins line the stairs as I tap up them and into the new house while an off screen chorus segues from ‘We’re Moving On Up’ to ‘Hooray for Hollywood’.    It’s going to be splendid and Leah, my gal Friday, is making all the arrangements for filming next week.  We’re still dreaming up little touches like having the two Coreys back in their shark costumes frolicking in the pool at Casa Maine, the new house.

As my mind is full of larger than life extravaganzas with their roots in classic Hollywood entertainment, I decided to find a film that might capture old time glamor tempered with modern sensibility.  In flipping through the movie channels, I ran across Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the classic King Kong.  Show biz!  New York City!  1930s fashions!  25-foot-tall gorilla!  It struck me as being a perfect inspiration for my little project.  I asked Normy to settle down to watch with me but he’s sort of anti the material ever since some upstart Australians beat him to musicalizing the material.  He retired to a quiet room to work on a new commission for the LA symphony, a requiem mass utilizing the movie themes of John Williams, while I mixed myself a very large cosmopolitan and settled in for a few hours of escapism.

In 2005, New Zealand film maker Peter Jackson was the darling of Hollywood.  His epic film version of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had won all sorts of Oscars, made a couple of gazillion dollars, and was widely regarded as one of the finest film achievements ever.  He could have his pick of projects.  As a film maker drawn to the fantastical, he decided to remake the 1933 classic monster movie King Kong, with its themes of primitive vs. civilization, men vs. women, and tragic flaws in man and beast.  Working from an adaptation by Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, his usual screenwriters, and with the resources of his Wingnut films and studio built by the profits of his previous endeavor, he set to work turning the hour and forty-minute original into a greater than three-hour epic, showing to the world his tragic flaw, which I refer to as Peter Jackson bloat, a thing that would see its full fruition in his The Hobbit movies, a few years later.

This version of King Kong follows the plot and outline of the original quite closely, setting it in 1933, the year the original was released.  Naomi Watts stars as Ann Darrow (the Fay Wray part), a vaudeville actress worn down by the depression when she happens to meet film maker Carl Denham (Jack Black) who is desperate for a leading lady for his new project, a south seas adventure.  Soon she is sailing away from New York with Carl and his crew under the leadership of Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann).  Also on board are vain leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and screenwriter/playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) who rapidly becomes smitten by our heroine.  Through various contrivances, the ship they are traveling on runs aground on the mysterious Skull Island, home to a strange savage tribe who worship a deity they call Kong who lives beyond the wall that surrounds their village.  Relationships between the visitors and the natives deteriorate and Ann is taken prisoner as a sacrifice to Kong who turns out to be a giant gorilla.  After he carries Ann off into the jungle, Jack, Carl and various sidekicks chase after her to get her back.  Eventually the survivors return to New York where Carl tries to make his fortune by exhibiting his gorilla, now known as King Kong, on Broadway.  Things do not go as planned and there are happy endings for some and tragic endings for others.

There is much to admire in this film.  The technical filmmaking is first rate and the art department have outdone themselves in recreating depression era Manhattan and the various surreal exteriors of Skull Island.  There are thrilling sequences, such as the grounding of the ship on the rocks of the island, charming sequences such as a quiet moment for Ann and Kong on a frozen pond in Central Park, and scary sequences such as the first encounter with the natives of the island.  King Kong himself is portrayed by Andy Serkis, the brilliant actor who brought Gollum to such memorable life in LOTR through motion capture.   Here, through similar film making techniques, he imbues Kong with a level of richness and humanity that nearly overcomes the film’s flaws.  Serkis also plays one of the ship’s crew, a French galley cook straight out of 1930s tramp steamer films and it’s fun to see him in human form but he’s a lot better as an ape.  Of course the gorilla has a lot more to do.  In general, all the performers are competent with Naomi Watts in particular finding the balance between steel and vulnerability necessary to make the character work.  The leading men are less successful.  Jack Black has obviously been based on the young Orson Welles and is about as annoying while Adrien Brody, seemingly playing Clifford Odets, seems entirely too smug and self-satisfied for Ann to actually be interested.  Only Kyle Chandler seems to get the sort of cartoon they all should be playing.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the writing or the characters but the long drawn out running time saps the film of energy and eventually our interest starts to flag.  New characters such as Colin Hanks as Carl’s gofer and Jamie Bell as some sort of wild child cabin boy are given far too much screen time.   We really don’ t need these folks and they add nothing to the central story.  Most of the bloat comes in the film’s second act as the men attempt to rescue Ann and end up battling dinosaurs, giant insects and various other unpleasantries.   The original dispensed with this in about ten minutes of stop motion models.  Here, it takes nearly an hour and various perils that lead to grisly death are extended to exorbitant lengths. If the film had been cut down to two or two and a quarter hours it might have been truly excellent.  They could have released the longer cut as a director’s cut DVD.  There is also an unfortunate tendency to throw in as many references to the mid-1930s as they can fit and some of the stereotypes that were appropriate then just run the wrong way these days.

There are some places where Jackson improves on the original.  The Skull Island natives are truly scary and menacing in his vision, very different from the rather lackadaisical extras of the 1930s.  The saturated color cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, reminiscent of the original Technicolor of the period, adds a visual lushness, especially in the city scenes.  The film opens with a montage of familiar depression era visual tropes that we are used to seeing in old black and white photos.  Having them rendered in vibrant color brings us closer to understanding them in terms of our reality rather than the rough the distance of time.

In the end, I’ve decided it’s a film that I can admire for what it gets right and be disappointed in for what it gets wrong.  It’s worth a peek, but don’t be afraid of getting up and fixing a snack in the middle.  Missing a few minutes here and there in the plodding middle section will actually improve it.

Charlie Chaplin imitation.  Bad check writing.  Sunset film making.  Gratuitous nasty sucker things.  Brontosaurus charge. Chocolate offering.  Theater destruction.  Animal cages.  Ersatz Arabian proverb.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

photo by Mr Bullitt

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