- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Universal
Reviewed by David Medsker
eter Jackson’s “King Kong” is spectacular but spectacularly flawed, filled with several awe inspiring moments but ultimately undone by a director who is so in love with his subject that he is too blind to see when enough is enough. Universal was in a tricky position here; after all, Jackson swept the 2004 Academy Awards with the epic “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” which means that no one was going to tell him that he can’t make a three-hour “King Kong” movie. Pity, because someone should have grown a pair and put Jackson in his place. Man, where’s Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein when you need him?
Set in New York during the Great Depression, Naomi Watts is Ann Darrow, a Vaudeville performer who finds herself out of work when the show in which she performs is shut down. She has a chance encounter with Carl Denham (Jack Black), a movie producer / con artist who’s trying to keep his latest movie afloat, even if it means stealing the footage he’s already shot before his benefactors can sell it. Carl has plans of taking his cast, whether they know it or not, to the presumably uninhabited Skull Island, and even tricks his screenwriter, playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), into staying on board just long enough to not be able to swim back to shore. Jack curses Carl for his trick, and tells him that he would rather write for the theater. “If you loved the theater that much, you would have jumped,” Carl replies.
Once they arrive on the island, the crew encounters a most primitive race of humans who offer Ann up for sacrifice to Kong, a gigantic ape. Kong takes Ann, but unlike his other sacrifices, he doesn’t kill her; rather, he seems enchanted by this exotic beauty, and defends her honor against all sorts of suitors who would like to have her for lunch, from dinosaurs to the biggest, nastiest bugs you’ve ever seen. Carl, of course, has far greater plans than his movie once he sets his sights on Kong, and hatches a plan to subdue him and bring him to New York, creating the most incredible show New York has ever seen.
It seems simple enough on paper, right? Take a stop motion classic from the ‘30s, dress it up in some modern day special effects, and everyone will be happy, right? Well, sure, provided that the modern day action has some basis in modern day reality. For example, there is no way that Ann is getting through the jungles of Skull Island at a dead run in bare feet. Likewise, there is no way that the crew only loses one or two members under the feet of a stampede of brontosauruses in a ravine, with Velociraptors nipping at their heels. They’re all dead, simple as that. Also, is it possible to have an island with so many predators and so little prey? Ann and her crew run into nasties both big and small, from T. Rexes to the largest bugs you can imagine (fans of Stephen Sommers’ only good movie, “Deep Rising,” will enjoy one scene in particular). What were all of these baddies feeding on before the crew arrived?
Perhaps it’s unfair to focus on what Jackson got wrong before talking about the many things he got right. For all of the times where Jackson pulls a stunt that is nothing short of improbable (Watts should have been torn to ribbons in the finale), the movie strums all of the right emotional chords at the right time. We laugh at Carl’s sleight-of-hand manipulation of everyone around him (Black was an inspired choice to make a very unlikable character likable); we thrill at the sight of Kong rescuing Ann from three (!) T. Rexes; we’re devastated when Carl and the crew succeed in subduing Kong in order to bring him to New York, we laugh when Kong discovers ice for the first time in Central Park, and we’re devastated again when he meets his inevitable fate. Those emotional notes go a long way to erase the logical leaps of faith – it’s disturbing how few directors know this – and Jackson makes these moments count. Still, he could have told this same story in 75% of the time, and it would have lost none of its emotional or visual impact. If anything, the impact would have been even greater.
“King Kong” should absolutely be seen on the big screen. Jackson, after all, went for the brass ring the way that few directors do, and despite his less than perfect results, there is far more to like about “Kong” than there is to decry. The guy has balls, damn it, and you have to admire that. However, like every other guy with balls, you can’t help but want to kick him in the kitten every once in a while, just to make sure he knows that he’s not the only person on the planet who owns a pair. It’s a philosophy that even Kong would appreciate, I imagine.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Fans of Universal’s three-disc Deluxe Extended Edition DVD will be disappointed to discover that the Blu-ray release is but a shell of that amazing set. Along with the extended and theatrical versions of the film, the only other extra to appear is an audio commentary with director Peter Jackson and co-writer/producer Philippa Boyens. Sure, some of the production featurettes have been folded into the studio’s trademark U-Control picture-in-picture video track, but even that feels rather anemic considering the deluxe edition had more than six hours worth of bonus material, including the excellent documentary “Recreating the Eighth Wonder.” Universal really dropped the ball on this one, so unless you absolutely must own a high-def version of the film, you’d be better off just holding on to your current edition instead.