Monday, December 26, 2005

Second Thoughts on Peter Jackson's KING KONG

I was able to see Peter Jackson's KING KONG a second time over the holidays and was surprised to find my feelings toward it changing so quickly. Not drastically, but noticeably. While I still enjoyed it and count it as a worthwhile experience, I liked the film somewhat less the second time around, mostly due to the overkill of the dinosaur sequences; the sheer excess of those sequences, especially the brotonsaurus rumble, seemed less like operatic effusion to me on the second pass and more like insecure overcompensation. I feel that the movie would probably be extremely well served by losing the brontosaurus scene; the initial reveal of the saurians contentedly munching vegetation in the valley is not particularly awe-inspiring, the shots of people chugging along beneath their heavy four-legged tonnage with little "uh-oh" cartoon expressions is silly and extremely artificial-looking (even Naomi Watts is guilty of this at one point, while running away from a T-rex), and I don't think anyone who gets stomped is particularly missed from the subsequent action. The T-rex sequence is also excessive, but it works better as a whole and helps to push Ann's relationship with Kong to its next, all-important level.

While Naomi Watts gives an outstanding performance, I can now see that I was being too generous in my compliments to suggest that her performance as Ann Darrow eclipsed that of Fay Wray, even if only for me. Fay Wray cannot be eclipsed so easily and, again contrary to my previous remarks, neither can the original Kong. I do believe that the new Kong outstrips the original in almost every way, in terms of being a believable illusion, but the original had its originality going for it... and the original film as his showcase. That counts for a lot. The 1933 film remains supreme, a perfectly measured triumph of the imagination, and apparently an unrepeatable moment despite close to a century's advances in technology and endless additional spending.

While the new version's love for the original is its greatest strength, it is likewise its greatest weakness. The new film has some very clever narrative additions to make, like splitting the romantic male lead between Jack Driscoll and the vain actor Bruce Baxter (the scene where he is inspired by one of his defaced movie posters is one of the movie's great character moments), but I maintain that it shoots itself in the hoof by giving Jack Black those famous closing words to say. His Denham character doesn't follow the arc that arrives at those words, but Jackson's reverence for the original would allow him no alternative. It should also be mentioned, as not enough reviews are doing, that Thomas Kreutschmann brings a lot to the movie as Captain Englehorn.

Where I think the remake beats the original in every possible respect is atop the Empire State Building. Kong's chest-pounding in the wake of defeating the first biplane, standing at the very pinnacle of 1933 New York City's highest structure, is a sublime moment and everything about the scene adds to its suspense, heroism, pathos and vertigo. (That said, it's true that we must overlook the fact that Ann is walking without fear at the very peak of the building in high heels and dressed rather skimpily to look so comfortable in high December winds.) I don't know why it was deemed a good idea to set the New York scenes at Christmas time, just because the movie was opening then; the original KONG wasn't a Christmas picture -- though SON OF KONG was. At least the cold, crisp air gave us the ice pond scene, which I know is controversial but which I like because it works as a microcosm for human experience; in essence, though Ann's relationship with Kong is short-lived, the movie grants this unlikely couple opportunities to experience the highs and lows of a well-rounded relationship. The Empire State Building sequence works as well as it does, in part, because we have seen the idylls of which this twosome is capable disrupted by the military, and because we know that everything Kong has done has been motivated by his love for Ann. Here he scales the Empire State Building and fights back against the biplanes, first and foremost, not because they are attacking him but because he is acting as his golden girl's protector.

It worries me that Peter Jackson is already affirming the likelihood of an eventual "expanded edition" of his KONG for DVD, because this movie doesn't need more of what it already has. It would be much better served by trusting in the power of its images and essential story and cutting back to the equivalent of a few well-chosen words.

Jackson's film is beautiful in many ways, and while its beauty doesn't quite kill the beast, it does bloat it.

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