The remake we deserved: King King (1996)

With Paramount having taken their crack at the 8th Wonder of the World with King Kong (1976) and King Kong Lives (1986), the ball was back in Universal’s court to make their own version of the Skull Island epic.

It had been ten years since Paramount released its follow-up to the 1976 King Kong remake entitled King Kong Lives, and Universal was once again hungry for some of that Kong cash. It may have lost the race to remake Kong in the mid-1970s, but Universal hardly saw this as the last word in the matter. In 1986, Universal opened The King Kong Encounter, a ride at Universal Studios, Hollywood that put theme park patrons right in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge during an assault by the rampaging King of Skull Island. A similar ride called Kongfrontation was created for Universal Studios, Orlando in 1990, this time placing patrons on the Queensboro Bridge during a Kong attack.

Though these rides were based on the DeLaurentiis remake, they proved to the masses that Universal was still interested in the franchise–and in Spring 1996, the studio that was made famous by its menagerie of monsters approached fledgling director Peter Jackson with the proposition to remake RKO’s classic. Jackson, who had just achieved success with Michael J. Fox vehicle The Frighteners (1996), is said to have accepted immediately.

Peter Jackson was a huge fan of the original, and dreamed of working on a Kong film since he was a child–so it likely didn’t take much to convince him to helm the project. He almost immediately started work on a treatment with his wife Fran Walsh and The Frighteners script writer Robert Zemeckis–and a sculpture of Kong fighting three tyrannosaurs was commissioned from Richard Taylor, co-founder of the Weta Workshop. The Universal remake of King Kong was off to an auspicious start.

The Weta Workshop bronze maquette. SOURCE: Hi-Def

From the treatment came the script, and filming was set to begin in 1998. The script starts with a prologue showing American fighter pilot Jack Driscoll (rumored to be played by either Bruce Campbell or George Clooney) and a war-buddy performing training maneuvers over France during World War I. During these exercises, the bloody Red Baron (famous real-life German fighter pilot and arch-enemy of Snoopy for those who don’t know) appears and fires on both, killing Jack’s friend and forcing Jack to ground. This event traumatizes Jack to the point where he refuses to fly. The script transitions to 1933 Sumatra, where Jack–now an adventurer–acts as protection for archaelogist Lord Darrow and his daughter Ann (rumored to be played by Kate Winslet).

Exploitative documentary filmmaker Carl Denham (rumored to be played by either Gary Oldman or Robert DeNiro) is also in Sumatra, and finds himself in the general area of the dig while attempting to make a film about the locals. Just as Lord Darrow uncovers an ape idol containing a map to the lost and fabled Skull Island, Denham offends the natives and all non-Sumatrans are chased to The Venture, which is waiting in a local harbor–all except for Lord Darrow, who dies on the way. On board the ship, the sleazy Denham hears of Skull Island and convinces Jack, Ann, and the captain to set a course for the mysterious location in hopes of filming some especially exotic fauna or natives.

The rest of the script follows the 1933 film fairly closely. Ann gets kidnapped, Kong takes Ann into the jungle, Kong is pursued by sailors who get picked off by dinosaurs and giant insects, Jack rescues Ann, and Denham captures Kong as he gives chase so he can put Kong on display when they get back home. Two key deviations happen once our characters get back to New York:

  1. Carl Denham doesn’t just throw Kong into chains. Instead, Denham abuses Kong like a circus elephant in order to get him to perform for the audience. When Kong escapes, Denham meets his end as Kong steps on him.
  2. As fighter planes circle Kong atop the Empire State Building and spray him with bullets, Jack Driscoll jumps into his own plane for the first time since his friend died at the beginning of the film and turns his gunfire on the other planes in an attempt to save Kong.

The script ends as one would expect: Kong dies, beauty killed beast, yadda yadda.

Peter Jackson was fairly happy with the script, some actors were being groomed for the film, and then…nothing. Universal canceled the project. The Lost World – Jurassic Park was released in 1997, and Disney’s Mighty Joe Young and Tri-Star’s Godzilla were released in 1998–so Universal felt that perhaps the market was being oversaturated with giant monster movies. The less-than-enthuiastic Godzilla reviews didn’t help matters, either, supposedly. So, the project was shelved indefinitely. Certain concepts were recycled and repurposed for use in The Mummy (1999). And Peter Jackson was left miffed, and his childhood fantasy was left unfulfilled. Of course, he’d get another crack at Kong less than a decade later–but that’s a story for another time.

Concept sketch of Kong slugging a carnivorous dinosaur.

I’m actually quite disappointed that we didn’t get to see this remake of King Kong. While much of the story and setting would have been familiar, the proposed cast was promising and the changes to the characters and story were sufficient enough to keep the concept fresh and new. The idea to merge more traditional adventure elements with Kong is vaguely reminiscent of Son of Kong (1933), and likely would have been put to better/more interesting use here. This was also a time when Peter Jackson kept his movies under five hours, so it probably would have avoided being obnoxiously excessive.

Instead, what we got was…well…

NEXT: King Kong (2005)

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