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Empire List #450: King Kong

Now this is why we go to the movies. “King Kong” takes its audience to a mythical island filled with deranged natives, dinosaurs, vampire bats, and giant man-eating bugs. And of course, lets not forget the king of the jungle, the world’s biggest gorilla, Kong. It’s the theme park from hell, and in the 2005 version, director Peter Jackson is the ringmaster.

I saw this movie right where it’s supposed to be seen: on the big screen during the holiday season. December is a bit of an unusual release date for such a movie, since it has more of a summer feel. I guess the summer slate was full and there was no room for a three-hour escapade to Skull island.

If you haven’t seen this version or the 1933 original, you must have seen the plot of the movie pop up somewhere before. Maybe you saw a poster of a giant gorilla holding a blond atop the Empire State Building, maybe you saw a cartoon version of the movie, or maybe you’ve just seen “Jurassic Park” which is “King Kong” without King Kong.

This movie has influenced hundreds of filmmakers. It was one of the reasons why Peter Jackson, the man behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, chose to become a director. It is only fitting he and his team at WingNut Film would get to remake one of the greatest adventure stories of all times.

The main characters of “King Kong” are introduced in one of the most cinematic cities in the world: New York City. Like the original, the action is set in the 1930s when the Great Depression placed hundreds of people out of a job. Among the unemployed is Vaudeville actress Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) who is about to be given a job offer she should refuse.

In another part of the city is director Carl Denham (Jack Black) also desperate for money. The money is not for him, but for his fledging production which, as he explains to his financiers, has turned into something more. He has found a map that he believes will lead him to the mysterious Skull Island where he intends to finish his movie. The producers laugh at the idea and want their money back. In a panic, Denham steals the movie equipment and intends to finish the movie on his own. All he needs is a leading lady.

Denham meets Anne as she tries to steal an apple from a fruit stand. She is convinced to join his crew when Denham tells her he is working with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) of whom she is a fan. Unfortunately, Driscoll’s first love is the stage and doesn’t care for the movies. He has no intention of joining Denham on his crazy adventure, but becomes stuck aboard his ship when Denham tricks him into staying onboard as the ship is departing. There is a director who will go all the way to get his movie made.

A separate movie could be made about the ship and its crew. It is called the SS Venture and is populated by a crew that thinks it has seen it all. There is captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), who is a crack shot with a Luger, Lumpy (Andy Serkis) the cook, whose food could make death-row inmates retch, first-mate Ben Ayes, a war veteran whose training will come in handy later, and Jimmy (Jamie Campbell) a young orphan who sees Ayes as a father figure. This crew is used to capturing and transporting wild animals across the high seas. One of their cages has the sign “Sumatran Rat Monkey”. Anyone who has seen Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” knows that is one nasty animal.
Yet even these men recoil in fear when they figure out they are heading for Skull Island. They should be. The adventure begins even before the crew lays anchor. Massive waves send the ship banging against the sharp rocks that surround the island and they barely avoid the giant wall that is not there to keep people out, but to keep the monsters inside.

Plot-wise, if you are vaguely familiar with the story you know what happens once they set foot on the island. The natives capture Anne, who is offered as a human sacrifice to King Kong, the giant gorilla who rules the island. The crew forms a rescue party, the island’s creatures kill many of them, Jack rescues Anne, and Denham captures Kong. His film may have failed, but he now has the eight wonder of the world in his possession. Unfortunately for him, Kong has a different plan for the third act of the movie.

In terms of remakes, Peter Jackson has made the same movie as Merian C. Cooper did in 1933. However, his version is longer and actually spends more time on character development. Even the relationship between Anne and Kong is more fleshed out. In the original, Kong was just an animal using Anne as a toy. In Jackson’s version, Anne is grateful when Kong rescues her from hungry dinosaurs. As they sit atop his island watching the sunset, she sees how lonely the big lug has become living by himself all these years. It’s tough being a bachelor, even when you’re king of the jungle.

As I left the theatre after I first saw this movie in December of 2005 I thought this had been one of the greatest experiences I had at the movies in a long time. Cinema has the power to create the impossible, and “King Kong” takes viewers to an island filled with impossible creatures. The movie was criticized for being too long, but I think a movie can be as long as it likes if there is never a dull moment. It certainly is not dull seeing Jack Black fighting giant cockroaches with a camera tripod.

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