Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Universal Pictures made several attempts–both half-hearted and full-blown–to remake RKO’s 1933 classic King Kong. After years in production hell, they finally released their version in 2005…for better or worse.
It’s taken me a little while to write this entry, and after a bit of soul-searching, I’ve discovered that it’s because I truly just don’t like Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake. It was hard to get enthusiastic about the film, and I didn’t relish the idea of having to watch the extended edition. But, this is Kongtoberfest, a celebration of the 8th Wonder of the World in all his various forms, and it wouldn’t do to ignore the biggest Kong film event of the mid-aughts–so I bit the bullet and did my duty. Did it change my opinion of the film? Well…
If you know the plot of the 1933 film, then you know the plot of King Kong ’05. The film takes place in 1933, Carl Denham (Jack Black) still needs to make a movie, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is still a struggling actress, Captain Englehorn and the sailors are still pretty courageous, Kong (Andy Serkis) is still horny/hungry/whatever he was in the ’33 film–but there are a handful of differences. The least offensive is that Jack Driscoll (portrayed by the perpetually droopy Adrian Brody) is a playwright, not a hardened seafaring adventurer like the other crew members in this version. He’s still plenty courageous, and Adrian Brody is a stellar actor, so this alteration is the only one that gets a pass from me.
In fact, let me note now that all of the actors do a fine enough job in this film for my tastes. Am I a fan of the sometimes oddball Jack Black one-liners in this movie specifically? No, but Jack Black is doing what Jack Black does, and I can live with even the cheesiest humor as written into the script. The acting isn’t a problem.
I’m going to be honest: This film is too damn long. I’m an avid fan of Fritz Lang films and Wagnerian opera–so it’s not some attention span deficiency on my part. No, I’m afraid it’s just pure Peter Jackson excess, ala The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014). The same guy who made a single novel into a trilogy of three hour plus films took the roughly hour-and-a-half film that was the 1933 version of Kong and essentially doubled that time.
What fills those extra minutes? Lots and lots of visual effects. Skull Island is teeming with CGI monsters. Thought the T-Rex fight from the original was cool? Well, now Kong fights three V-Rexes (the new T-Rex-like species in Kong ’05) over the course of what feels like thirty minutes. Sounds awesome, right? It’s not. And the whole movie is like this. The voyage of the Venture is longer. The spider pit sequence is (presumably) longer. Ann’s captivity in Kong’s cave is longer. Kong’s rampage through New York is longer. For as much of a fan of the original as Peter Jackson is (and I do believe he is–he’s proven as much in his private life), Jackson certainly didn’t share Cooper’s eye for pacing.
Let’s talk about those visuals for a moment, shall we? The problem with digital effects is that they never age well. Until we achieve the ability to mimic real life movements and real people almost flawlessly, CGI for any given movie will forever be obsolete in the face of the next leap forward. And time hasn’t been kind to Kong ’05. While the effects aren’t terrible and, indeed, were even cutting edge for the time, they aren’t as good as those in Kong: Skull Island (2017). Compare the CGI in Kong ’05 to the effects of Willis O’Brien in Kong ’33 or Rick Baker in Kong ’76–practical effects, timeless effects. There’s just no contest.
But let’s talk about Kong himself. CGI aside, he’s probably fine, right? Sadly, no. Kong, the King of Skull Island, the 8th Wonder of the World, worked as a monster because he was weird. O’Brien and Cooper designed him in 1933 to be something that wasn’t quite man and wasn’t quite ape, but rather a mix of the two. It wasn’t just his size that was intimidating; his appearance, upright stance, and gait were fearsome, uncanny, and off-putting, the epitome of “monster” in “giant monster.” Apparently, someone at Universal (possibly Peter Jackson) missed this, because what we get in Kong ’05 isn’t a strange cryptid, but just a silverback gorilla. He’s giant, sure, but otherwise looks…well, normal. In fact, he reminds me of another somewhat normal giant gorilla in the Merian C. Cooper pantheon: Mighty Joe Young.
And this brings me to my other problem with Kong in this film: He’s basically Mighty Joe Young in appearance and personality, and Ann Darrow treats him as such. He’s not really monstrous beyond his size, and so Ann doesn’t fear him as unnatural as she does in Kong ’33. In fact, she actually bonds with the ape, sweetly juggling like a circus clown for him in his mountain cave on Skull Island. While this makes her grief over his death at the end more poignant, it doesn’t fit with the atmosphere of the film upon which it was based.
That’s perhaps the most frustrating thing about Kong ’05. Whereas Kong himself should make me uncomfortable because he’s stuck in this limbo between two worlds (man and beast), this movie makes me uncomfortable because it too is stuck in limbo. It’s a remake of Kong ’33 and even uses the setting and characters in much the same way as the original, but it isn’t a shot-for-shot remake like the 1998 Psycho. It tries to change things up a bit to make it a seemingly fresh concept, but it ignores the pacing successes of the original and gives into bloat and excess. It attempts to remain respectful to the film that started the franchise, but disregards some of the most crucial character dynamics and ignores the atmosphere of that film. In some ways, this movie was too much like Kong ’33 and in others, not enough. And that’s on Peter Jackson who, for all his fandom and encyclopedic knowledge of Kong, failed to strike the fragile balance necessary for a satisfying remake. He so loved the original that he just couldn’t help but make the same movie–only longer, jokey-er, and boring-er.
With apologies to Robert Armstrong: “No, it wasn’t the humor or dated effects. ‘Twas hubris killed the remake.”