Shiny Shelf

King Kong

By Mark Clapham on 10 December 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Not quite a wonder of the world, Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ remake is nonetheless a very good adventure monster movie that kids will love.

Coming in at around three hours in length, Jackson’s ‘Kong’ is certainly very long for a remake of a ninety minute monster movie. Surprisingly, while the film doesn’t really justify its length, it does actually use it for something and fill the time well. Opening in 1930s New York with a montage of both grim day-to-day life in the depression and the escape that theatrical entertainment offered, the film goes on to develop a story that pays tribute not only to the original ‘Kong’ as a story, but also to the industry that created it and the time it was made in. (In this respect, it’s good to see that there’s a better reason for the period setting rather than just that decades status as a shorthand for pulpy matinee adventure.)

Building on the movie-within-a-movie plot of the original, the movie that obsessive director Karl Denham (Jack Black at his endearing-but-near-deranged best) sets out to make is the same kind of stately production that you’d expect in the 1930s, with the same polite acting style as the original ‘Kong’. But Denham’s intentions are deeper than the end-product of his efforts would suggest: he wants to reintroduce wonder to the world, to be the first to show audiences things they have never seen. Denham’s leading lady, Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts), is an actress whose own melancholy makes her a sympathetic dramatic lead, but would far rather escape the depression (in both senses) by performing light comedy and slapstick.

The first hour carefully, and quite entertainingly, sets up its cast and builds up its central theme of the need for wonder and escapism in the modern world. After all that time setting up a sense of foreboding and repeating how awesome the following spectacle is going to be, the film reaches Skull Island with expectations raised.

Good job the film delivers on the build-up, really. The entirety of the Skull Island section of the film is great. Jackson picks up the pace, bombarding his lead characters with terrifying natives, spectacular vistas, yucky monstrosities and constant threats. The action sequences are the best of Jackson’s career, kinetic and visceral while also being bloodless enough to be suitable for a family audience. Most of all, Skull Island is exciting, an endless string of action set pieces including the most remarkable fight sequence since hundreds of Agent Smiths piled on Keanu in ‘The Matrix Reloaded’.

WETA’s design work blissfully leaves any ideas of realism behind when the movie reaches Skull Island, investing landscapes and characters with a distinct sense of character and visual flare. While there have been plenty of action movies and films with weird creatures, it’s been a while since anyone made a real monster movie, and that’s what we’ve got here: fur and scales may be present and correct, but the creatures are grotesques, invested with character and menace. The dinosaurs are an imaginative leap away from the animated paleontology lesson of ‘Jurassic Park’, which is no bad thing. Adults may squirm at the creepy crawlies, sharp teeth and crunchy fantasy violence, but kids will love it. They’ll also love Kong himself, an appealing, childlike and occasionally spiteful creation whose character is slowly revealed through his interactions with Anne. The relationship between beauty and the beast here is less romantic, more a simple connection between a childlike alpha male and a sensitive woman with an escapist streak. There are a couple of scenes of them playing around together which will make adults roll their eyes, but which kids will just get.

The Island sequence is the peak of the movie, which is not to say that the rest isn’t enjoyable, merely that it’s on more predictable territory. We all know how this story ends, and Jackson executes that ending with a great deal of style. As with ‘Return of the King’, the emotional punch of the ending is undermined by Jackson’s tendency to both overplay and repeat his characters’ emoting scenes to the point of exhaustion. There’s nothing as teeth-grinding as Sam Gamgee talking about the strawberries of the Shire (‘Look Sam, could you shut up for a second – I’m trying to get rid of this ring and you’re anecdotes aren’t really relevant right now.’), but there’s only so many times woman and monster can gaze into each other’s eyes before it gets old.

Aside from having the usual Jackson excesses – character scenes that linger too long and push up the running time to a silly length, and the odd bit of fuzzy CG compositing – this is an engaging remake which serves to bring the creature feature up to date for a new audience. The script is rock solid, and indeed a lot funnier than you’d expect from the writers of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, and Jackson’s gift for excellent casting has not deserted him, from Naomi Watts right down to young Colin Hanks. Jackson’s direction is as free floating as ever, effectively using a combination of traditionally composed shots and looser, livelier camerawork depending on the demands of the scene. In this respect he lets his production design take the lead, stepping back when an image deserves to be lingered upon, diving in when it’s action time.

In an age of two-and-a-half-hour films based on slim children’s books, it’s hard to begrudge a film a running time of a little longer when it feels like its taken you on quite a journey and, as Denham says in the movie, shown you something you really hadn’t seen before. Jackson’s intention was to inspire the same feelings he had when seeing the original ‘Kong’ as a child, the feeling of having looked into another world, one which only cinema could take you to. Previous generations of young audiences have been blown away by that original ‘Kong’, or the exotic inhabitants and novelties of the Mos Eisley Cantina or Isla Nuba. The creatures and sights of Jackson’s Skull Island could have a similar effect, opening wide the eyes of a new generation of cinemagoers. As such, it takes the spirit of the original and reinterprets it with modern style – exactly what any remake should do.

The ‘King Kong’ UK premiere was in aid of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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