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King of the Screen

Jackson's remake a Kong-sized success


Is there anything Peter Jackson can't do? He is the one man who could bring Lord of the Rings to life, and now he takes an ape the size of a dinosaur, a beast who has just killed a hundred people and makes you love him. By the end of the film, you'll find yourself taking Kong's side against the entire world. And you will cry (yes, you will) when he is killed.

I have always wanted to love the story of King Kong. All the elements of a good yarn are there: the classic tale of the Beauty and the Beast and the clash of man and nature. The story mourns the lion, the bear, the tiger, the silverback—each an animal that was once the king of its particular jungle before it became a tragic sacrifice to the rise of man's global empire. In concept, King Kong always seemed like a perfect story to me.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into the original 1933 King Kong. I know, I know. I'm probably revealing my own cultural and historical ignorance by admitting to my reluctance to love it. The film was a triumph in its day, and KK's special effects in '33 must have seemed revolutionary in a world that had yet to experience the claymation stylings of Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer, but cheap shots about technology aside, the acting was plain silly. Fay Wray did deliver some impressive screaming and swooning (far too much of it, really) but what else did they have? And the writing ... ugh. Take the big romance scene, for example:

"Don't laugh. I'm scared for ya'. I'm sorta scared of ya', too. Ann ... uh, I ... uh ... Say, I guess I love you!"

"Why, Jack! But, you hate women."

"Yeah, I know. But you aren't women."

The kindest thing I can say about the '33 version of the film is that it's far better than the 1976 remake.

In all honesty, the 1976 version should never have been made. Its script was some of the worst writing in movie history:

"I'm Dwan, D-W-A-N, Dwan, that's my name. You know, like Dawn, except I switched two letters, you know, to make it more memorable."

"Oh, my God. What a meaningful miracle ... Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?"

And getting back to the big romance scene:

"Excuse me, and I'll just finish stealing in the galley. Say, uh, you'll disappoint me if you're here when I get back."

"What do you mean you'll be disappointed?"

"Well, I was hoping you'd be waiting for me in your cabin."

What poetry!

Like I said, I always wanted to love the story of King Kong, but Cooper, Schoedsack and Dino de Laurentis didn't help.

This time, Peter Jackson got it right.

The film's scenery and cinematography is breathtaking. Skull Island is terrifying as well as heartrending in its beauty. The scenes of New York are, well, mostly terrifying except for one brief moment at sunrise when ... no, I mustn't spoil it!

But let's revisit that romance scene again, this time done 2005-style. In 1933, our Romeo was a hard-boiled sailor. In 1976, he was a longhaired Princeton Enviro-hunk. In 2005, he is a playwright:

Jack: "It's not about words."

Jack and Ann: (kiss)

Now, that's romance.

And let us not forget the acting. As it turns out, Jack Black (prepare to be startled) can actually rise above college-level antics. He is wonderful as filmmaker Carl Denham, silly and likable at first but increasingly greasy and menacing as the film moves on. Adrian Brody is utterly believable as Jack Driscoll, the loveable, heroic and slightly bumbling playwright. Naomi Watts is triumphant as Ann Darrow, and plays the part more tender than terrified, unlike her predecessors.

However, the real shining star is Kong himself. The computer generated imagery is perfect. And this time around, the filmmakers have actually studied silverbacks and know how to accurately replicate their movement and behavior. Kong is powerful and graceful, thrilling and intimidating, loveable and gentle. When he roars and pounds his chest, and when he lines up across from T-Rex for the infamous fight, the audience gasps for breath.

And yet Kong manages to get a smile and a laugh from the crowd. In one of the most surprising and amazing scenes I have ever seen on film, Kong, a native of the tropics, experiences snow and ice for the first time. It's like experiencing the beauty of winter through the eyes of a child. It's that good.

And in the end, Kong elicits our tears. Dragged to New York in chains, forced to be a vaudeville act for the entertainment of jeering crowds, Kong, the last surviving king of the beasts, the last wonder of the natural world, has one last conquering rampage in him. Bursting free into Manhattan, he destroys a few autos and street cars before taking Ann—the only human who has been kind to him, the only proof he has that mankind has a heart—to the top of the Empire State Building. There, on top of what was once the tallest building in world, at the very heart of his global empire's capital city, Kong strikes one last blow for the kings of the jungle. Standing atop that throne, roaring and pounding his chest, he is, for one glorious moment, the king of the world. It is a thrilling, gallant and defiant moment. And because we know the victory will be short-lived, the moment is heartbreaking. Kong pays the ultimate price for his defiance, and you, dear reader, will cry.

Kong is a sacrifice to the expanding, all-conquering empire of a far more aggressive king, but as his last act on this earth, he gives his life almost willingly to save the human he loves from harm. Ann Darrow's character is the symbol of the good in mankind, his heart, the only thing worth dying for in a jungle far crueler and more sinister than Kong's own.

As the crowds gather around the lifeless Kong to mock and cheer and trample his body, the audience is left hoping the sacrifice was worth it.