Let me get this off my hairy chest. Director Peter Jackson has not reinvented or reimagined King Kong. Jackson has made King Kong. I’m not about to drag out my critic porta potty and dump on the original. Given the state of the art in 1933, King Kong was and still is a beast to contend with. Jackson’s King Kong is a different beast, an epic, breathtaking, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, tear-jerking love story, brilliant in its execution, flawless in its ability to genuinely entertain and engage.
Not only is King Kong the best film of the year, Jackson’s Kong is one of the best movies ever made, a Valentine to nostalgia, wrapped up in a perfect cinematic package. Jackson has always maintained that King Kong was his inspiration to become a filmmaker. He tried to resurrect King Kong years ago, but budget and visual effects concerns put the big ape on ice. Then came the Lord of the Rings trilogy, establishing Jackson as a master storyteller capable of creating believable characters and breathtaking landscapes.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was pre school for Jackson. King Kong is his master’s thesis, and what a brilliant display of showmanship it is. Clocking in at just over three hours, Jackson’s vision is one filled with high drama and adventure.
The beauty of this beast is how Jackson doesn’t just meet but beats expectations. He has taken a familiar tale and made it new again, honoring tradition without becoming its slave. More than anything else, Jackson tips his director’s cap every chance he gets, paying tribute to a timeless and classic film.
Jackson uses Merian C. Cooper’s film as a blueprint, encouraging co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to capture its spirit and, in some cases, borrow entire passages of dialogue. Once the groundwork is laid, King Kong becomes a Peter Jackson film. I abhor unnecessary hyperbole, but after watching King Kong, I believe Jackson is a God among directors. He creates images we know are fake, yet they become very real to us. He breathes life into characters who take on dimensions of their own.
Who better to escort us on this incredible adventure encompassing one of the greatest love stories of all time? Even with Willis O’Brien’s 1933 revolutionary special effects, there has always been a disconnect between the 25-foot ape and his leading lady. We were awed by O’Brien’s ability to combine live-action and miniature stop-motion animation, but seldom did we believe Kong was anything more than a special effects creation. The blue screen, giant gorilla hand effects in the 1976 version were embarrassing at best.
Jackson and his team of magicians accomplish the impossible. They not only make us believe the big guy exists, we believe he shares the frame with his human co-stars. The compositions are so realistic and startling we immediately let down our guard and buy into the premise.
I’m a sucker for what I like to term good old-fashioned Hollywood movies. The Aviator was one of those films, a larger-than-life portrait of a larger-than-life figure. King Kong is the King of those type of movies, a perfect throwback to the way Hollywood used to make and look at movies. Jackson is more than a filmmaker; he’s a storyteller. He knows where to put the camera for optimum effect, how to perfectly light his actors, exactly when to cut from a close-up to a wide-shot. His technical expertise allows Jackson to apply equal focus on the human drama.
Jackson purposely holds back, allowing the story to unfold on its own terms. He’s in no hurry to get to Skull Island, and once we arrive on its shores, we understand his hesitation. Jackson and the writers take their time introducing the characters who will play pivotal parts in the grand adventure. Fleshing out all of the characters makes the journey, their participation and the eventual outcome meaningful.
Working with longtime cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and production designer Grant Major, Jackson lovingly recreates New York in the early 1930s, when the Great Depression divided the city into two camps: the haves and have-nots. While the rich and influential dine in luxury, poor showgirls like Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, breathtakingly illuminating) struggle for a bite to eat. Studio filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, animated and egomaniacal) is also facing tough times. His latest project is ready to be scrapped by the studio, even though he has already assembled a crew and hired a boat to travel to an uncharted island to film the greatest jungle adventure ever.
The studio doesn’t care that Denham has hired noted playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, smart and heroic) to write the script, but aspiring actress Darrow does and jumps at the chance to fill in for Denham’s ailing leading lady. With the studio and authorities hot on their trail, Denham, Darrow, Driscoll, leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler, perfectly cast), cameraman Herb (John Sumner) and Denham’s loyal assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) set sail.
On board the Venture, Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) and his crew learn of Denham’s scheme and plan to turn around until their ship hits an eerie bank of fog. Then it’s a wild ride through seemingly endless columns of jagged rocks obviously designed to keep intruders away. Once on shore, Denham and his crew learn they have stumbled upon an ancient civilization which frowns on unwelcome guests. They believe that explains the enormous wall keeping the tribe separated from the rest of the island.
When Darrow is kidnapped by the tribe and sacrificed to Kong, the crew of the ship comes to her rescue, venturing over the wall and deep into the jungle, where they encounter one danger after another. As Kong and his new mate get to know each other, the men learn what doesn’t kill them will probably eat them later, including encounters with dinosaurs so amazing in their scope and intensity you feel like your heart will explode. One action sequence virtually goes on forever, starting with a brontosaurus stampede and ending with a horrific encounter with thousands of spiders and blood-sucking leeches. In between, Jackson and company surpass anything you have ever seen on the screen, including a cliff- and vine-hanging fight that will leave your knuckles white.
Advances in motion-capture technology allow Jackson to create the definitive Kong. Using Andy Serkis (Lumpy, the ship’s cook) as his digital inspiration, Jackson’s Kong is more than pixels in a computer. We see him as real, and the giveaway is in the eyes. Since Kong can’t talk, his eyes have to speak for him, and we understand every word. The performance will break your heart. After taking Darrow to his cliffside lair, we see all of the scars on Kong’s body, obviously wounds from previous battles. If Kong were nothing more than a special effect, we wouldn’t think twice about how much pain he must have endured receiving those scars, how horrible it must have been to be wounded and alone.
The film has that effect on you. You deeply care about Kong and the characters, which makes the tragedy of the tale so devastating. We know where the story is headed, so when Kong and Darrow take a time out in Central Park to experience the childlike wonderment of seeing snow and ice for the first time, we find ourselves crying because this innocence won’t last. This scene says so much about the relationship between Kong and Darrow; and how we wish it could last forever. It doesn’t, and when the final confrontation takes place on top of the Empire State Building, we are so engulfed in grief and sorrow we want to swat the biplanes down ourselves.
I dare you to find another movie that moves you as much, as frequently, leaving you so emotionally wasted you have to wait until the credits are over so no one will see the tears in your eyes.