Sunday, January 15, 2006

Monkey see, monkey two: "King Kong" komparison

After putting it off for a few weeks, I finally got to see "King Kong" today. I was worried I'd miss it, especially after going to the trouble of seeing the original "King Kong" from 1933. That was on TCM not long ago, and since I had never seen it, this was the perfect opportunity to see how a classic and its special-effects-laden remake compared. Curious? Read on.

The Original King, 1933
I think I TiVoed this a couple of times before buckling down, and I regret waiting so long. For a movie that's more than 70 years old, the first "Kong" holds up pretty well.

For the sake of those visiting us from Neptune, here's the basic plot: A film crew takes boat to uncharted Skull Island, where the natives kidnap the blonde actress to offer to Kong, a giant ape. The ship's crew launches a rescue mission, recovers the girl and captures Kong, who is displayed in New York as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Far from flattered, Kong escapes and scales the Empire State Building but falls to his death as his sweetheart looks on. The end.

Like everyone, I knew the story but was pleasantly surprised at how briskly it moved along. There's some build-up before they get to the island, but things kick into high gear pretty quickly. Adding to this is a spirited performance by Robert Armstrong as filmmaker Carl Denham. He was pretty funny. Also, Fay Wray really does look great as Ann Darrow, but her non-ape love interest, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), was more wooden than the Kong model, and it was hard to swallow the love story between those two characters.

As for Kong, it's a given that special effects from the 1930s are going to look somewhat cheesy today. But it's amazing what they were able to do with the stop-motion stuff and close-ups of Kong's face and hand. I can totally see where this would have blown away audiences during the Depression, and it's just as impressive as the effects in "Jason and the Argonauts," which came out a whopping 30 years later.

New to the Throne, 2005
Speaking of effects, that's one of two reasons to see the newest "Kong." No surprise, really, given today's moviemaking climate and the film's director, Peter "I Love Hobbits" Jackson.

And the effects are spectacular. We get lifelike dinosaurs on Skull Island, impressive digital settings in the jungle and Manhattan, and plenty of gross bugs and giant bats. Unlike some movies in which the digital stuff is too obvious -- I always think of "Blade 2" and (don't laugh) the "Charlie's Angels" movies, but even in "Spider-Man" you could "see the strings" -- Jackson does a good job of keeping things seamless, even during the big dinosaur throwdown while the crew tries to rescue Ann from Kong.

Ah yes, Kong. As you might expect, we get a much more animated ape this time around, but it's not just about the face and the fur. Unlike the lumbering Kong of '33 (as well as '76), this Kong doesn't give much warning before he shows up. He's still a big dude, sure, but he's also pretty nimble, and it's cool to watch him swing around and gallop through the jungle. Even if I haven't watched a lot of apes move, I had absolutely no problem accepting Kong as a real beast.

But he's much more, you see, and that leads to the other advantage of the remake over the original. While Kong clearly had a serious thing for Ann in 1933, it was pretty one-dimensional and one-sided. I know, I know ... why should we expect anything else? But the remake gives us a little more depth, and allows for a plausible connection between captor and captive, this time played by the lovely Naomi Watts. Kong seems like a savage predator at first, and given the carcasses of previous sacrifices, it's reasonable to think he'll gobble up Ann as well. But this girl ... she's not like the others, and even if it's a little silly and sappy, it's actually kind of sweet to see how Kong comes to love her, and how she sees him as more than a brute.

I won't pretend the previous paragraph made a whole lot of sense, but I do think Jackson did a good job fleshing out the Kong-Ann relationship. The combination of the latest digital effects and great facial expressions by the Kong model, Andy "Gollum" Serkis, make this a more mutual thing than in '33, which ultimately makes for a more poignant story, especially when it comes to Kong's capture and death.

That said, the remake is bloated, clocking in at three hours and change. But it doesn't need to be trimmed that much. I'd probably cut at least one action scene (involving big bugs) and maybe another. I'd also leave out some of the side stories, most notably the stuff with the ship's first mate and a young crew member. All told, you could probably lose 30 minutes and have a movie that actually seems tight at two-and-a-half hours.

Otherwise, there's not a lot to complain about. Sure, Jack Black as Carl Denham and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll -- now a script writer inside of a first mate -- are odd fits and nothing special. Black is hard to take seriously, of course, and Brody is just a bizarre choice given his art-house chops. Also, his character is pretty unbelievable. I'm sorry, but no Neil Simon wannabe is going to be all gung-ho on Skull Island.

Still, that's not why you go see "King Kong, " and Jackson ultimately does a nice job being faithful to the original -- some scenes are identical -- while providing neato effects and new nuances. Of course, if he really wanted to push the envelope, he would have had Ann and Kong settle down on Skull Island. Yeah, let's see how long Kong is interested once she starts bossing him around. "This cave is filthy, you big ape!"


At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a fun fact about the spider pit scene. The scene was originally filmed for the 1930s version, but the director was worried it was a little too much for audiences and that it took too much focus off of King Kong. So it was cut from the movie and somewhere along the way, the original piece of film was lost.

When Jackson decided to remake Kong, he really wanted to include this famous piece of lost film, so he used drawings and storyboards from the original to recreate it.

I think he really should've cut the dinosaur stampede. The special effcts are by far the weakest in the film and it doesn't add much.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Jefferson said...

I disagree. The stampede has gotten a little flak from critics, but I liked the big guys bumping each other while humans and smaller dinosaurs darted among their legs.

By comparison, the spider pit -- I had read about that scene being cut from the original -- seemed to be just gross-out stuff that delayed the rescue. Also not sure I bought the lead actor guy leading folks back for the rescue.

Other than that, the movie was totally believable.


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