King Kong is the film that Peter Jackson believes he was born to make...or remake, as the case may be. Myriad stories detail the filmmaker's obsession, from fashioning a Kong model from his mom's fur stole when he was 9 years old to his involvement in the recent special edition DVD release of the 1933 original. The new film is even rife with references to the original, including the same art deco opening titles and similar music.
Kong's story is simple enough--a scrappy film crew sails to an uncharted island still populated by ferocious dinosaurs, overgrown spiders, and at least one giant ape--and works well for a rousing genre pic with a running time of 100 minutes and change (the "restored" version of the 1933 original clocks in at 104). Stretched to near breaking at over three hours, Jackson's Kong is less king than emperor, not quite nude, but damn close--underdressed, overly stylized, and with parts that are jarringly incongruous.
The film breaks into roughly equal thirds, and each has its own distinct problems. The first hour focuses on the crew's journey to the island in excruciating detail, going to greatly contrived lengths to establish unnecessary backstory and ominous foreshadowing (the latter of which could only have been made more explicit by the addition of some ear-splitting musical cues...thankfully there is some restraint to be found). Whatever interest might have been generated by playing spot the reference (Jack Black's obsessive director discusses Fay Wray's picture for RKO with his assistant; one of the animal cages in the ship's hold reads "Sumatran Rat Monkey") is generally undermined by their lack of subtlety and the fact that the trailer got us to damn near the same spot in a scant 20 seconds.
Once they land on Skull Island, the film devolves into a painfully repetitive pattern of dinosaur attacks, miraculous rescues, and weirdly silly exchanges between Kong and Naomi Watts. Here more than anywhere else is where it becomes apparent that what Jackson desperately needs is an editor--someone who is willing to go beyond merely splicing together footage and who will occasionally whack Jackson on the nose with a rolled up newspaper while delivering a stern "No!" Whole scenes serve absolutely no narrative or thematic purpose, while scenes that do "work" often outstay their welcome. Even the much ballyhooed special effects manage to break down spectacularly in a couple of scenes. One sequence manages to fail on all counts, a seemingly interminable brontosaurus' stampede with visual effects so bad that I couldn't help but wonder if Jackson and company simply ran out of time.
By the time the film gets to New York, the film's larger problem has become abundantly clear. Jackson wants Kong to have it both ways--as a campy genre pic and a sweeping epic. Absurdly silly scenes of dinosaur wrestling and giant roaches are interspersed with tender, humanizing scenes of high seriousness that strive for a "romance for the ages" feel. The film becomes a discordant hodge-podge that takes itself far too seriously for the campy tripe it keeps serving up. The in-your-face pretense of thematic development kills any adrenaline buzz you might have worked up, while any intellectual interest is all but squashed by bugs...lots and lots of bugs... .
Ultimately, Kong stops just short of being an awful movie, just vast potential smothered beneath the enormous weight of an excess of...well...everything. In the end, it's not really beauty that kills this beast, but Jackson's own blind affection.
©2005 Ed Owens