Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on December 6, 2005, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Let’s get right to the point: Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a masterpiece, an astonishing work of cinematic art that can lay legitimate claim to the title of greatest monster movie ever made. It is also something equally impressive: a remake that truly honors, respects and outdoes the original, and like the first King Kong back in 1933, it sets a standard by which all future films in the genre will be judged.
This may all sound like hyperbole, but it’s hard not to come away from the experience of seeing this film with a combined feeling of admiration and awe. In the course of 187 minutes that never once drag, King Kong runs the gamut of emotions with stunning craftsmanship that doesn’t feel like it’s straining for effect. The special FX are as eye-boggling as one would expect on a $200-million budget, but Jackson isn’t out to just wow us with spectacle; as the Lord of the Rings movies proved, he has become a master at breathing humanity into non-human creatures, and his love for Kong and Kong shines through every frame.
I won’t go into too much of the plot, because most genre fans will know the basic story even if they haven’t actually seen the ’33 film (and if you haven’t, get thee to a DVD store; familiarity with the original will alter your enjoyment of the new movie not a bit—and might even enhance it, given the number of knowing in-references it contains). Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have retained the black-and-white classic’s basic storyline and added many additional layers of detail, a couple of extra characters and, most notably, an upgrade of the “spider pit” sequence that was famously extracted from it (and recreated by Jackson and co. for the special two-DVD set). He has also souped up the individual setpieces to all the extent that modern technology allows; why have Kong fight a single T. rex, to cite one example, when he can take on three?
More than showing off, the action sequences express Jackson’s desire to give the audience 110 percent, to thrill and astound them—and then take them to the next level. There’s a giddy, can-I-top-this? feeling to the way Jackson keeps upping the ante within the individual setpieces, of which the T. rex battle is a great example. I wouldn’t dream of giving away where it goes, but it’s to a place that’s over the top and yet utterly convincing, the sort of thing that’ll have you smiling at its audaciousness even as it takes your breath away, and sharing in Jackson’s evident glee at setting new challenges for himself and achieving them every time.
But King Kong is about much more than the adrenaline rush; like all the classic creatures, Kong was as memorable for his human qualities as for his monstrousness, and Jackson has gone above and beyond his inspiration in this area as well. With the assist of motion-capture performer Andy Serkis (who also gets a significant onscreen acting role) and a huge FX team, the director has created a new Kong who is anthropomorphized right up to the point where his actions are still believable as those of a wild, 25-foot-tall gorilla. The CGI technicians have mastered the art of replicating fur and movement, and they also give Kong a heart, a soul and, at a few moments, a sense of humor. He’s by turns terrifying and heroic, a master of his domain whose only weakness turns out to be the beautiful blonde who is initially offered to him as a sacrifice.
Which brings us to the performance of Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow. It is in the scenes between Ann and Kong that Jackson takes the biggest risks, developing a kind of love story that could have easily tipped over into sentimentality, and elicited the wrong kind of laughs. Yet it is played with just the right amount of intentional comedy and deep feeling, and with absolute conviction by Watts, so that it becomes overwhelmingly moving. It’s by now a cliché to note a performer’s skill at playing against nothing, reacting to CG beings to be added later, but Watts had the additional challenge of playing out a fully dimensional relationship with a creature that did not exist. She succeeds to the extent that issues of Kong’s physical believability are left far behind, and it becomes entirely plausible that Ann could come to care for the big ape.
Her human co-stars are no slouches either. Jack Black, at first a seemingly unlikely casting choice for intrepid filmmaker Carl Denham, proves to be just right for the role. Denham at the start is a likable scoundrel, a man who’ll literally go to the ends of the Earth to get a picture made; as the film goes on, however, he acquires a darker side than his ’33 counterpart played by Robert Armstrong, one that neither Jackson nor Black are hesitant to explore. The heroic Jack Driscoll has been reimagined from Bruce Cabot’s stoic tough guy to a playwright who discovers his potential for courage in his quest to rescue his beloved Ann, and Adrien Brody is right on the mark. Cabot’s characterization clearly inspired the most significant new part, a vain, egotistical actor named Bruce Baxter whom Denham has cast opposite Ann (and has a few snatches of Cabot’s dialogue in Denham’s film-within-the-film), and who is most amusingly played by Kyle Chandler. Serkis as the ship’s cook, Thomas Kretschmann as the confrontational captain, Evan Parke as a heroic first mate and Jamie Bell as a green young sailor are among the supporting players who all receive moments to shine.
And it would be remiss not to note the key craftsmen involved as well, including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who lends the film a visual palette that ranges from gorgeous to threatening, sometimes in the same scene; Jamie Selkirk, whose editing keeps the epic-length story moving like the wind; production designer Grant Major, who recreates New York in the ’30s and invents a scary Skull Island with equal persuasiveness; and FX supervisors Richard Taylor and Joe Letteri, who marshaled an army of digital warriors to create stunning visuals. Perhaps most remarkable, considering he only came on board the project a couple of months ago, is the work of composer James Newton Howard, whose music complements the thrills and drama and, unlike so many action/fantasy scores, values subtlety just as much as bombast.
Bottom line: If any movie in recent memory deserves the too-often inappropriately applied label of “instant classic,” it’s this one. King Kong is everything that so many genre/FX spectaculars promise, and so few deliver. It’s enough to wash away any lingering bad memories of failed megapictures and get you believing in the transportive power of movies again. The only down note: It’ll likely be quite some time before another film of this type comes along to outdo or even match it.