By Matt Gunn
King Kong has existed as a cinematic spectacle for 72 years, and it has survived multiple adaptations. Director Peter Jackson adds to Kong’s legacy, giving the great ape a heart to match its 25-foot stature.
The result is an action-filled drama that pays tribute to the original while adding enough emotional depth to redefine a conceptual legend. Jackson’s success comes not through his unique vision, but through the revitalization of King Kong’s famous story.
Jackson’s incarnation of King Kong follows opportunistic producer Carl Denham’s (Jack Black) quest to film the ultimate adventure movie. Denham deceives his studio, and tricks actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) onto a ship destined for Skull Island.
Much of the opening hour of the 180-minute film is spent on the ship. Driscoll frantically types a script surrounded by animal cages and chloroform in the belly of the boat. Denham and crew begin filming scenes, and the overall tone is light. Although the action is fairly slow, there are some truly funny moments as the cast begins to bond.
The tone changes the moment Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) receives a warrant for Denham’s arrest. As tension rises and the ship nears its destination, Jackson’s trademarks begin to show.
The feel of the story matches the scenery of Skull Island. The crew enters the darkness. The pace quickens when Darrow is kidnapped, and Jackson’s creativity brings the lost island to life. There are parts of the island that come dangerously close to looking like Middle Earth, but they are forgotten when King Kong enters the story.
As soon as he’s introduced, Kong takes center stage. Andy Serkis – who also gave the world Gollum – gives the ape life and emotion, and enough depth of character to keep pace with the live action cast. Like Jim Henson did with Muppets, Serkis excels in his ability to give emotion to the inanimate. Because of the care taken by his creators, it’s easy to forget that Kong is animated, and even easier to forget he can’t speak.
On an island where every creature is larger than life, Kong is in charge. He bonds with Darrow through her ability as an entertainer, and protects her from danger. Woman and ape bond through the island’s adversity, and through the actress, the audience becomes emotionally attached to Kong. Mutual loneliness brings the two together, and it’s loneliness that makes Kong vulnerable to his captors.
Jackson doesn’t alter King Kong’s ending. The final third of King Kong is an all-out romance, and the care Jackson puts into the direction shows in the film’s emotional peak. Though it parallels the original, the technology Jackson utilizes makes Kong’s story fresh and captivating. The audience won’t be surprised with the conclusion. Even Kong seems to know the outcome when he begins his ascent of the Empire State Building.
King Kong doesn’t break new ground in storytelling, but its cast and filmmakers share a singular love for the material. In the end, King Kong accomplishes everything a blockbuster film should. There’s action, suspense and romance, and even though the movie isn’t perfect, King Kong is ultimately a rewarding experience.