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King Kong

Directed by Peter Jackson with Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jack Black, color, 187 minutes, rated PG-13, distributed by Universal Pictures, 2005

Going Ape in New York

By John D. Delmar

Despite the 7,000 new films submitted to the Sundance Film Festival every year, and the untold thousands of scripts stacked up in studio slush piles, when Hollywood wants to make a film (particularly a blockbuster), they make a remake, or a re-remake, since this is the third time around for the big ape (not counting numerous sibling simians, from "Mighty Joe Young" on).

Presumably, this story has legs: big hairy legs and long nubile legs. When the original "King Kong" (see The City Review article) was released in 1933, people had lots of real terrors to fear, including the Depression, bank closings, dust bowls, and a scary, racist Charlie Chaplin look-alike in Germany. What better way to supplant legitimate anxiety than to slip into a dark room and watch others cower in fear from a 25-foot high gorilla?

Remakes are fine, sometimes better than the originals. This Kong III is better at times than Kong I (the Fay Wray version), and infinitely better than Kong II (the Jessica Lange/World Trade Center 1976 remake). Although director Peter Jackson (of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) has a way with expansive, panoramic cinematography, this Kong unfortunately is far too long, too dependant on visual effects and hokey thrills, and is often as meandering as a curious monkey poking about in the jungle.

The film opens on a Depression-era shanty-town in Central Park. Jackson fairly accurately depicts the real fears of the Thirties-not a big ape, but poverty, hunger and despair. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) plays a struggling hoofer, down on her luck, looking for work. She encounters snarky Carl Denham (Jack Black), who combines the entrepreneurial skills and looks of a young, chubby Orson Welles with the credibility of Jon Lovitz. On their way to Oz (or rather Skull Island) to shoot a film, they pick up Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a sulky but hunky writer.

Kong doesn't even appear until a good hour or so into the saga (at over three hours long, you'll need to bring an extra banana if the popcorn runs out). The appearance of the big ape (or the guy in the monkey suit, or the Computer Generated Image) is just the beginning of what most resembles an advanced video game battle of Kong and his Jurassic Park playmates, an extended Donkey Kong vs. Gertie the Dinosaur. Lots of inauthentic prehistoric creatures thump through the primordial jungle, and one expects to see a wide-eyed Jeff Goldblum hiding in the foliage. With a budget of over $200 million dollars, one would assume state of the art CGI, but a dino stampede has the authenticity of Raquel Welch's torn loincloth cheapie, "One Million Years B.C."

There is a long and pointless encounter with creepy crawling Buick-sized bugs (bigger, even, than New York City cockroaches!), sure to terrify the kids, and scenes with Booga-Booga type natives, who, of course, enjoy tying up and sacrificing the very blonde Miss Darrow as a canapé for the vegan ape. I couldn't wait for the crew to leave the Jurassic out-takes and get back to the City.

Because the greatest supporting actor in "King Kong" is New York City itself, even though the City is primarily a back lot and/or computer simulation. Jackson has stated that the verisimilitude of the City was important to establishing the credibility of the film, and he studied stills and period newsreels to capture the grit and feel of the era,
the clothing and cars and crowds of downtown 1930's NYC.

He captures wonderful, evocative prologue scenes of struggling vaudevillians (alas, my parents, a classically trained dancer and a comedian, were among those hopeful thousands), trying to sing and dance and make people laugh while they faced starvation and destitution. There are vertiginous swirling shots of the entire 1933 New York City from the Observation Deck perspective of both Kong and the bi-plane aviators who use him for target practice. There are scenes of Kong going ape in a Thirties Times Square, tossing Model T's and Yellow Cabs around like so many banana peels. There is even a romantic encounter between Kong and his blonde in a skating pond in Central Park, where they frolic like young lovers in a perfume commercial (how Central Park pops up between Times Square and The Empire State Building only a New Zealand cartographer can explain).

The most iconic scenes in the film (and probably among the most famous in cinema history) are of Kong, the ultimate alpha male, protecting his beloved atop the Empire State Building, fighting off planes, fighting off modernity and the City itself. This struggle between the primal beast and the "civilized" urban environment Jackson depicts stunningly. One can sympathize with Kong, the ultimate fish out of water, trying to comprehend the mores of the metropolis, hanging on for dear life (sounds like the story of many people in New York!). If Jackson hadn't gotten carried away with his big budget, shooting scene after scene and effect after effect, just because he could, this Kong might have been a far better film.

In the end, it is not Beauty that fells the great Beast, but the City itself. After all, Kong can fight off three dinosaurs with one hand. New York City, unfortunately, is far more treacherous.

Blue-ray version of 2005 film

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