Wednesday, December 21, 2005

King Freaking Kong

I finally got to see King Kong a couple of nights ago (I say "finally" both because it took me almost a week to get to the theater to see it, and also because I've been waiting for this movie to come out ever since they announced immediately after Return of the King a couple of years ago). My feelings were mixed, to say the least.

marccarlson, a member of my writing group said this about the movie: "I may actually like this one better. Yeah, there are some trivial little bits that I might have chosen to do some other way given my druthers, but there were some of those in the original movie too." I see what he's saying there, because I thought some of the choices weren't what I would have done. But the main source of my discomfort is not with any one particular change from the original. It's in the pattern common to all the changes.

It's hard to remake a classic. On the one hand, if you change too much, you run the risk of alienating your built-in fanbase (see the 1976 Kong). On the other hand, if you make essentially no changes at all, audiences will rightly ask, "Why was this movie made at all?" (see the remakes of Psycho or My Man Godfrey). There is a sweet spot, where you make a film that remains true to the spirit of the original while bringing just enough of a fresh approach to allow the film to stand on its own.

The '76 remake tried to do this by camping the entire thing up and playing Kong largely for laughs, not surprising when the screenwriter was Lorenzo Semple, Jr., creator of the Adam West Batman TV series and screenwriter of other campfests like the 1980 Flash Gordon.

Jackson and Co. take a more sober route. The original film is an excellent example of spare plotting - Denham and co. take a ship to a mysterious lost island. One of the passengers is Ann Darrow, a beautiful woman whom Denham has fast-talked into coming along to star in his film. When they arrive at the island, they meet natives who worship a mysterious monster known as Kong. The natives kidnap Ann to sacrifice to Kong. Kong turns out to be a giant gorilla, who carries Ann off, with Denham and his men in pursuit. They discover that the island is populated with creatures lost to the rest of the world, dinosaurs and giant insects. Denham and his men are pursued by a brontosaurus, then shaken off a log spanning a chasm by Kong himself. Most of Denham's men are killed, but Jack Driscoll survives to pursue Kong still. Meanwhile, Kong battles a tyrannosaur, a sea serpent and a pterodactyl in order to protect Ann. Driscoll rescues Ann, and Kong pursues the lovers back to the native village, where he is captured by Denham. Denham takes Kong to New York to exhibit on Broadway, but Kong escapes, kidnaps Ann, and carries her to the top of the Empire State Building, where he is shot by airplanes.

The Jackson film hits basically every note of this plot, but expands the film mainly by inflating the numbers. The ship's crew is expanded. The brontosaur becomes a herd. Kong battles multiple T-Rex's and a flock of huge bats. Kong's battles in New York are expanded as well; he even battles more airplanes than the first Kong did. Some of the changes work well, really raising the stakes of the story. Others just feel sort of overstuffed and desperate, like all the rigamarole with the ship battling waves and fog to make it to the island or the truly over-the-top bug scene in the chasm.

Having said all that, however, the central element of the film - Kong himself - is so well done that Jackson's other sins are forgiven. The original Kong was a fascinating creature, clearly artificial, yet so full of power and personality that you willingly gave yourself over to the fantasy. However, as good as the effects were for their time, they are clearly showing their age. What Jackson has done is to make Kong more animalistic, more like a real gorilla, but still maintaining a regal presence and intelligence that just commands your attention when he's on screen. The performance by Andy Serkis, augmented by the work of a ton of animators, brought me close to tears a few times, especially in the scenes in which Ann and Kong watch the sun set, and later rise. Jackson's Kong is majestic, yet with a playful sense of humor that's truly endearing.

I don't know that I'm dying for an Expanded Edition like I bought for the Lord of the Rings trilogy; the movie already feels too long, especially in the tragic moments which seem overmilked. But I will definitely buy it and study it when it comes out. I may even buy the '76 version, just to have a complete set.

I draw the line at King Kong Lives, however. Not buying it. No way, no how. I'd sooner buy King Kong Escapes.

1 comment:

Marc Carlson said...

I agree, mixed emotions. What I would have done, were it me, would be to have done more of a blend of the original novel/movie, and then add to that. The other stuff, like going into more detail with Ann's career made more sense to telling a coherent story, was ok, but just not how I would have done it.

I'm pretty sure we can now see why the spider canyon sequence was cut from the origianl after the first showing. However, jackson's managed to weave enough to fit into the plot into it that it really can't be cut this time.

Your comments on "more" are well taken, Did we need more than one brontosaurus or rex? Probably not, but if O'Brian could have turned the fight scene with the erexes out with stop-motion, don't you think he would have? :)

I will say that the fight sequence on the ESB made me forgive allthe other changes I didn't necessarily agree with. And Jackson does tell a good story overall.