In the early years of the Great Depression, a young actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) struggles to survive in New York City. When the theater where she works closes, a promoter suggests that she do burlesque for the money.
A filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black) screens footage for his investors who are not very pleased with what they are seeing. Denham wants more money so he can film on location, an island somewhere near Sumatra. He tells the investors that the screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), has got the new script almost finished. The men ask Denham to wait outside while they discuss matters. Denham overhears bad news, and flees with his assistant, taking all the reels, that really belong to the investors, with him. Denham has taken passage for himself and his crew on a ship bound supposedly for Singapore, but Denham intends to change course and head for the mysterious Skull Island.
In the cab, Denham discovers from his assistant, Preston (Colin Hanks) that the lead actress has bailed. Denham jumps out of the cab, and sees Ann who is standing in front of the burlesque theater. As she turns away, he sees she needs work, invites her to dinner, and convinces her to come on the voyage. Once they arrive at the ship, The Venture, Jack is waiting and hands a few pages of a script to Denham. He turns to leave as Jack hears police sirens close in. Denham delays Jack because he needs a complete script; the ship leaves, and the adventure begins.
The ship is an old freighter whose captain (Thomans Kretchschmann) captures wild and exotic animals to bring back live for zoos. On board there is a huge amount of chloroform. Thus the stage is set for the passengers and crew to encounter King Kong.
King Kong reunites many of the team that brought us The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, including director/writer Peter Jackson, co-writers and producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and Richard Taylor of the Weta Workshop for imagining the creatures (CGI’s) and digital effects. King Kong is Jackson’s pet (sic) project; the original film (1933) inspired him to be a filmmaker. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings II and III via captured animation, gives life, and eyes, to King Kong.
I saw the original King Kong almost forty years ago on television, and the only scene I really remember is Kong clutching Fay Wray in his hand as he climbed up the side of the Empire State Building (that had just finished being built in 1931, the year before the story takes place). When I finally got to go up in the Empire State Building in 1970, that’s the vision I carried with me. I don’t remember much of the original film except that it was in black and white, and that there was a bond between Kong and the woman. I think this bond is essential to the story, and one that Jackson and his team worked hard to re-create in this new interpretation of the original story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace.
But there’s much in Jackson’s three hour plus version that is not in the original, because I would have remembered: pre-historic animals, indigenous people who seemed straight out of a primative horror film (are they indigenous or are they shipwrecked colonists, otherwise why would they need walls to separate them from creatures?), and long chases through Jurassic Park-like canyons that could have been shorter. The acting was interesting. Before they got to the island, the characters acted as if they were in a 1930’s movie, rather melodramatic; once the action really started, well, the acting wasn’t that important.
Besides the action, adventure, and horror aspects of the film, there was quite a bit of Hollywood (or filmmaking) commentary that was funny. Jack Black as Denham is perfect in this role as the shyster filmmaker who will do anything to get the footage he needs. When the camera is wrecked, and the film exposed, it’s logical to Denham that they have to bring Kong back to New York, because no one will believe them. He’s a pragmatic philosopher, too, and somewhat of a poet, as you will see at the end. “There are many mysteries left in life”, he rationalizes to his assistant …, “and people will pay the price of a ticket to see them.”
King Kong will thrill you, scare you, and touch you. The film may evoke deep conversation from people locked in the intelligent design/evolution/creationism debate, because locked in Kong’s gigantic body, is intelligence and heart. If art can be said to be about, beauty, truth, and goodness, King Kong certainly tells a story of beauty and goodness; the truth is for each viewer to discern. To me it said that there are mysteries in the world still, with and without the movies.
The script has strong parallel structure but the film has some weak points. The first time Kong picked up Ann and swung her through the air, I laughed and thought “This is Barbie’s Great Adventure” come to life! As the film progresses, however, this impression fades away. There were way too many gross out ROUS’s (Rodents – and insects – of Unusual Size, from The Princess Bride), I have already referred to Jurassic Park and dinosaurs, and the film itself refers to the “Beauty and the Beast” tale. I would have preferred shorter chase sequences and instead seen how they loaded Kong on the ship and got him to New York.
The film stretched credibility several times, like when Ann kept climbing higher on the Empire State Building to be with Kong as he makes his iconic last stand against the men shooting at him from airplanes. If you’ve ever been on the observation deck of the Empire State Building you know how stong the wind can be; Ann never could have stood on that top platform in heels as Jack, her human love interest, arrives to rescue her. (It could be said that King Kong is the ultimate An Affair to Remember – 1957, Love Affair -1994, and Sleepless in Seattle - 1993. Hmm. Perhaps it is a love story from the male perspective after all; what would Freud and Jung say? One of my younger sisters, who is quite conversant on movies, just reminded me that a skyscraper is the ultimate phallic symbol. Ann’s last stand is also very iconic; is this a feminist re-interpretation of the original film?)
If you don’t like the idea of sailing on rough seas, tangling with awful insects of incredible size, or great heights, wait to see King Kong on DVD. The special effects are so excellent, and evoke such an intense physical reaction, that you feel like you are really there. I had to cover my eyes and peek through my fingers a few times.
I imagine it would be fun to deconstruct King Kong from the perspective of myth, psychology, and so forth. But in the last analysis, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is highly entertaining - and that makes it worth the price of a ticket.