Long before Peter Jackson ever set about adapting Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings saga to the big screen, his dream project was a remake of his all-time favourite film, King Kong. One of the first ever full-length fantasy movies, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 picture remains a genre classic, a gripping combination of thrills, emotion and technical wizardry, that, while obviously dated, still impresses today. Jackson’s mega-budget update does it as well as anyone could have hoped – his love of the subject matter is clear from the very first scenes, and despite its sprawling length and unsurprising emphasis on cutting edge CGI, retains the emotional core that was so important to the original film.
Unlike the woeful 1976 remake, Jackson’s film returns to the 1930s setting of the original film – which was of course contemporary in its day, but now provides a rich backdrop for the unfolding story. In a lovingly recreated Depression-era New York, the principal players are introduced – film-making maverick Carl Denham (Jack Black), who is forced to steal the work-in-progress prints of his latest adventure epic when the studio refuse to grant him the money to film on a tropical island. With the studio heads hot on his trail and without a leading lady, Denham coaxes recently-unemployed vaudeville star Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) into boarding the S.S. Venture with him, and hits the ocean. Also on board are acclaimed playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) who is slumming it as Denham’s scriptwriter, Denham’s hapless assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), cheesy leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), plus assorted crew – stern Germanic Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), tough first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) and cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell). Denham only reveals their destination when it is too late to turn back – a mysterious location known as Skull Island, which only exists on an ancient map which has somehow comes into the director’s possession.
The original Kong took its time in setting the scene, and indeed it was a full 45 minutes before Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion ape made his first appearance on screen. Jackson maintains a similarly careful build-up, and spends a considerable amount of his three-hour running time on introducing his characters before and during their journey to Skull Island. Most of this first hour is the Jack Black show – Black turns Denham into a smooth-talking but maniacal crackpot obsessed with capturing amazing footage on film, whatever the cost. There are some very funny scenes, in particular between Black’s character and uptight intellectual Driscoll – who had no intention of travelling to the island with Denham – while Naomi Watts provides an engaging combination of desperation at the financial situation which has forced onto the ship, and girlish excitement at being on board with Driscoll, her theatrical idol. Unfortunately, it’s also in this section that many of Kong’s flaws emerge – in particular the father-son relationship between Hayes and Jimmy, which is well enough acted, but seems redundant to the unfolding story. At heart, this tale is a four-hander between Ann, Jack, Carl and Kong, and these superfluous characters do nothing but slow the film down.
So it’s a bit of a trek to get to Skull Island, but when the Venture finally arrives on the fog-shrouded shore, Jackson finally kicks his film into high-gear. What follows will be familiar enough to anyone who knows the original film – Ann is kidnapped by the Kong-worshipping natives (here a tribe of misshapen savages closely related to Lord of the Rings’ orcs) and offered up to the great beast, while the crew’s attempts to rescue her lead to various nasty deaths and encounters with the prehistorical creatures that populate the island. This is Jackson doing what he does best, creating a lavish, completely convincing fantasy world around his characters and realising it with astonishing attention to detail. The look, atmosphere and sounds of the jungle are yet another step forward for CGI, while the dinosaurs that Driscoll and co encounter in their quest to save Ann are terrifying real. As for Kong himself, Jackson sensibly doesn’t make him too monstrous – this isn’t some mutant ape hybrid, but literally a 25-foot gorilla, with all the movements and mannerisms of an ape, realised on a grand scale. And once again Andy Serkis, the actor who brought Gollum so vividly to life in the Lord of the Rings films, does a superlative job of investing Kong with a personality. There are some knockout action set-pieces while in the jungle – a thunderous brontosaurus stampede in which the crew find themselves caught up, Jackson’s update of the infamous lost ‘spider pit’ sequence featuring all manner of disgusting mega-bugs, and Kong’s astonishing battle with no less than three T-Rex’s, as he attempts to protect the Ann from their jaws.
But despite all the sound and fury of the action, King Kong is a beauty-and-the-beast love story. This must have been Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh’s biggest headache – how to make this most unlikeliest of relationships play out to a cynical modern audience. But to their credit they largely succeed, thanks in no small part by Naomi Watts – her performance with Kong runs the gamut from terrified by the huge ape to horrified at the way he is treated by his captors, but she never gives the impression of someone just acting against a green screen. The big change here is that while Fay Wray remained afraid of Kong throughout, Watts soon comes to sympathise with the powerful but lonely creature, especially when he is taken out of his natural habitat and shipped back for public display in New York. Of course, we are still talking about a pretty girl and a giant gorilla, and the ice-skating sequence, as Kong and Ann go for a spin on the frozen lake in Central Park may just to a bit too ridiculous for some. Nevertheless, Kong’s final moments, as the bi-planes do their work and send this once-mighty warrior tumbling from the top of the Empire State Building, have an emotional impact quite rare for this sort of big-budget effects fest.
Ultimately, King Kong doesn’t quite hit the heights of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because there’s very little here that wasn’t in the 1933 film, which told the same story in half the time. Kong 2005 is akin to a great cover version of a classic song – it’s brilliantly put together and succeeds because the original material is just so strong, but you can’t quite avoid the nagging feeling that its the original that still holds all the magic. But to be fair, I suspect Jackson would say exactly the same thing, and those unfamiliar with the first film – or those that have a problem with its more dated aspects – will love this full-blooded, roaring beast of a blockbuster.
Hugely talented New Zealand director best known today for his Lord of the Rings adaptations. Started out making inventive, entertaining gore comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead, while his adult Muppet-spoof Meet the Feebles was a true one-off. Jackson's powerful murder drama Heavenly Creatures was his breakthrough as a more 'serious' filmmaker, and if horror comedy The Frighteners was a bit of a disappoinment, then his epic The Lord Of The Rings trilogy - Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King were often breathtaking interpretations of Tolkien's books. 2005's blockbuster King Kong saw Jackson finally realise his dream of updating his all-time favourite film, but literary adaptation The Lovely Bones won him little respect. In 2012 he returned to Middle Earth with the three-part epic The Hobbit and in 2018 directed acclaimed WWI doc They Shall Not Grow Old.