Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"Kong" delivers a beauty of a beast


directed by Peter Jackson
written by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis

According to several accounts, the original “King Kong” was the movie that made Peter Jackson want to make movies. It’s only appropriate, then, that his new “King Kong,” more than any other movie this year, has reminded me why I *go* to the movies—and why I keep going back.

No, it’s not a cinematic landmark in the way the 1933 film was. It’s probably not going to win any awards, other than the expected nods for special effects, and at 3 hours and 7 minutes run time, it does feel a bit overstuffed. But never dull. From start to finish this “Kong” is pure, undiluted entertainment.

True, there’s a lot of setup before moviedom’s “tallest, darkest leading man” makes his first appearance. Yet somehow the film doesn’t flag—at least, it didn’t for me. Jackson takes his time laying out the Depression-era backdrop of 1930s New York, where pretty, plucky vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) finds herself out of work, food, money, and prospects. As fate would have it, Ann runs into the equally desperate Carl Denham (Jack Black), a movie director/producer who’s short a leading lady and frantically trying to outrun his investors before they pull the plug on his current film. He persuades Ann to sign on, and before long they’re on board a dingy tub bound for the distant, uncharted Skull Island, along with the rest of Denham’s cast and crew. Playwright and part-time screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), against his will, also comes along for the ride; before long, he and Ann, framed against the light of a rosy sunset, are performing an excellent dry run for “Titanic.”

The romantic interlude proves brief, however, as Jackson adeptly builds an atmosphere of mounting dread, using some of the oldest tricks in the book—shrouds of fog, forbidding coastlines, and enigmatic comments by squinting, weatherbeaten old sailors. Once our adventurers land, it’s one can-you-top-this thrill ride after another, as they find themselves attacked by everything from snarling zombie-like natives to rampaging dinosaurs and squirm-inducing giant slugs, and, of course, the King himself. The natives capture Ann and offer her up to the big fella, who takes a fancy to her and, in the movie’s showiest sequence, fights off another pack of even toothier dinosaurs to protect her. Needless to say, after all this labor he’s pretty PO’d when Driscoll (who’s got to be the most intrepid playwright ever) manages to whisk her away. He pursues them furiously to the shore, unaware that a trap’s been sprung by the ever-opportunistic Denham. Add several caseloads of chloroform, a ship’s hold that must be bigger than it looks, a carefully elided voyage back to New York, and, well, the rest is history.

But this isn’t your granddad’s Kong—the major difference being the central girl-gorilla relationship. In this version, Ann progresses rapidly from Kong’s screaming captive to his kindred spirit, as she entertains him with vaudeville tricks and teaches him the word “beautiful.” (And no, she’s not talking about herself.) Their bond, however, remains strictly platonic, the filmmakers having chosen wisely to remove all the racy (and subliminally racist) sexual undertones of the 1933 film. Some of the racial subtext inevitably remains, but only to the extent that the original Kong myth—the capture of the savage “other,” his pursuit of a blonde, his running amok in the heart of “civilization,” and his eventual defeat by technology—plays off the archetypal fears and fantasies of western imperialism. Jackson et al. seem to want to address this particular aspect of the narrative by interposing a recurring reference to “Heart of Darkness,” but exactly where they’re trying to go with it is never made clear.

Far more successful as an answer to the imperialist romance is the film’s effort to humanize Kong and his attachment to Ann. The CGI Kong is a stupendous creation, which puts to shame everything in “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” and “Star Wars” combined. But the soul behind those amazingly expressive eyes comes from a live actor. The Academy really ought to create an Oscar to give Andy Serkis (who also plays the ship’s cook): if you thought his work as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” was impressive, try imagining how he channeled the behavior and movements of a 25-foot gorilla while interacting with Naomi Watts. Though their relationship sometimes verges on the treacly, especially when they meet again in New York, both actors succeed in conveying a convincing connection between these two lonely souls. It makes Kong’s final fall poignant rather than iconic, an effect heightened by the fact that even the “eighth wonder of the world,” properly scaled, is dwarfed by the New York skyline. (For more discussion on this subject, see this thoughtful observation on the total defiance of scaling in the original KK.)

Next to these two, the rest of the cast gamely play a collective second fiddle. Jack Black does surprisingly well as the unscrupulous Denham, channeling his trademark manic intensity into the shameless single-mindedness of a director determined to make his film at any cost. One can’t help wonder if Team Jackson wasn’t poking gentle fun at their own leader’s fanatical devotion to this project, especially since the whole movie seems to be operating at some level as one long in-joke about the business of making movies. (There’s a funny bit near the end where Kong pauses in wreaking havoc to pick up every passing blonde he sees, inspect her, and then toss her away upon discovering she isn’t Ann; I wanted to make a silly crack about the disposability of blondes in Hollywood.) The fact that Jackson pulls out all the stops to entertain us only underlines the fact that “King Kong” is, in a sense, a story about what society is willing to pay for its entertainment.

Your soul? Maybe not—leave that to Denham and Jackson. But this “King Kong” is definitely worth your ten bucks.



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