“…I’ve got my love story going. The boy fell in love with the girl. You understood who Denham was. You understood the character of the Captain. I got ‘em all. So once you got that chase going, I never had to stop to explain a single damn thing.” – Merian C. Cooper (excerpt from interview, on King Kong (1933) DVD commentary)
Even if you’ve never seen 1933’s King Kong (And if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?), you’re probably aware of the basic story: a giant gorilla with a fondness for blondes travels to the big city, only to meet his demise after he topples off a skyscraper. Aside from the classic beauty and the beast theme, King Kong was a special effects showcase from the beginning, with each subsequent film attempting to one-up the previous version. The advances in special effects technology and escalating budgets produced three films, representing not only three distinct eras, but three distinct eras of special effects. The first version employed stop motion effects, followed by a combination of a man in suit and animatronics, and finally, computer generated animation. Were the remakes a leap forward or a step backward?
Note: For the purposes of this discussion, I’m refraining from the various sequels (i.e., Son of Kong), re-purposing (i.e., King Kong vs. Godzilla) and offshoots (i.e., The Mighty Kong).
King Kong (1933) Directed by: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by: James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose; Original story by: Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The original King Kong is almost universally regarded as the best, and who am I to disagree? While the remakes were progressively longer affairs, producer/directors Merian C. Cooper* and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s film is an example of economy in storytelling, telling the grand tale in a mere 104 minutes. The filmmakers spend the first 40 minutes establishing the characters and building suspense, like a roller coaster climbing a lift hill. After the initial setup, the story becomes a juggernaut of unprecedented sights and sounds.
* Fun fact: Cooper wrote the “Arabian proverb” quoted at the beginning of the film.
The special effects team didn’t just push the envelope, but re-defined it, inspiring a multitude of effects artists. Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion effects work would prove to be a heavy influence on Ray Harryhausen (who contributed to an entertaining and insightful commentary for the 2005 DVD), among others. Whether watching the film for the first time or 50th time, it’s easy to become carried away as Kong grapples with an allosaurus, or the crew members of the Venture brave the other prehistoric denizens of Skull Island to rescue Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).
Wray is fetching as plucky leading lady Darrow, who tames the savage beast despite her diminutive stature. Robert Armstrong is especially memorable as movie producer Carl Denham, based on Cooper, himself, with an ample helping of P.T. Barnum for good measure. At the hands of O’Brien, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is more than simple movie trickery, but another character, infused with energy and soul, one painstaking frame at a time. When he takes the inevitable, tragic plunge* off the Empire State Building, his death resonates with us, as if he’d been a living, breathing creature.
* Fun fact #2: Cooper and Schoedsack appear as the crew of the biplane that takes its final, fatal shot at the giant ape.
The 1933 King Kong exists in its own category, thanks to the beautiful black and white cinematography and fun and surreal effects. It possesses a timeless quality that immerses the viewer in a different world from the first reel until the last.
King Kong (1976) Directed by: John Guillermin; Written by: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.; Based on the 1933 screenplay by: James A. Creelman and Ruth Rose; Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin; Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
The misguided 1976 remake of King Kong moves the story from the 1930s to a more contemporary (well, the 1970s, anyway) setting. In a departure from the original story, Kong is discovered during an oil surveying expedition. Jeff Bridges stars as Ivy League professor Jack Prescott, who stows away on the oil company ship. In place of Denham is a hateful corporate bigwig, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), looking to strike it rich. Jessica Lange, in her feature film debut as Dwan (a re-ordering of the letters in “Ann Darrow”), inhabits the Fay Wray role. Unlike her spirited predecessor, Lange plays a nitwit, forced to spout dialogue such as “you goddamn chauvinist-pig ape!” and walk around the ship in skimpy outfits.
Instead of the Empire State Building, the recently completed World Trade Center becomes the setting for the film’s climax. The film attempts to create a tenuous link between the twin towers and a rock formation on Kong’s habitat, although you never see him climbing it.
The effects, featuring an ape costume worn by designer Rick Baker, himself, and animatronics by Carlo Rambaldi, fail to convince. Although the ape costume is decent, the posture and limb proportions remind us we’re seeing nothing more than a guy in a suit. Instead of the amazing fights with dinosaurs in the original film, we witness an anemic tussle between Kong and a barely animated giant snake. With all due respect to effects titans Baker and Rambaldi, we’ve seen much better from them.
One of the keys to the 1933 version of King Kong’s longevity as a classic is the timeless “beauty and the beast” theme between the huge simian and Darrow. Woman and ape share a connection that transcends species. Kong holds a childlike fascination with his captive, and possesses a primitive instinct to protect her. Instead, the 1976 filmmakers missed the point, with Kong’s playful, childlike fascination giving way to disturbing overtones of bestiality. Kong becomes little more than a perverted ape, ogling a sex object.
King Kong (2005) Directed by Peter Jackson; Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson; Original story by: Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Andy Serkis; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Nearly 30 years after the first remake, New Zealand director/co-writer Peter Jackson had another go at the material. This time around, there’s a more conscious effort to pay homage to Cooper and Schoedsack’s film, from the 1930s setting to the pulp adventure of Skull Island, and snippets of dialogue lifted directly from the original. Jackson’s film is cast in the same mold as his Lord of the Rings trilogy, as a 3-hour-plus epic. The film was lambasted by many fans of the 1933 original as a pale imitation, but at least Jackson and his crew made an earnest attempt to recapture some of the spirit.
Some of the newest remake’s deficits are difficult to overlook. If the original movie was an exercise in lean narrative, Jackson’s King Kong is the antithesis, with a bloated running time that should have been trimmed by an hour. The 70-plus years that elapsed between the first version and the last haven’t improved the depiction of indigenous people. The residents of Skull Island are portrayed as bloodthirsty savages. Unlike the 1933 and 1976 versions, no attempt is made to communicate with them. Jackson and company pull out all the stops (and restraints) to depict the hazards on Skull Island, making the middle segment of the movie less like King Kong and more like Jurassic Park. Jackson adopts a “more is more” approach, showing a Skull Island overrun with dinosaurs and deadly giant bugs. The fight between Kong and a tyrannosaurus rex is an obvious shout out to the original film, but goes on far too long, as well as the other scenes depicting run-ins with various island nasties. Another concern is that Denham, as portrayed by Jack Black, is an obnoxious charlatan, willing to risk anyone’s life and limb for his nature flick. He never gets his comeuppance after indirectly causing the deaths of dozens of people, and by the time he utters the famous final line (from the 1933 original), you wish someone would throttle him.
Much more effective is the relationship between Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and Kong. The motion capture animation by New Zealand effects company Weta Digital, coupled with Andy Serkis’ performance, is truly impressive and affective. In contrast to the dizzying action sequences, it’s the quiet moments Kong shares with Darrow that stand out the most. As good as Kong looks, however, there’s something unmistakably lost in translation between the dreamlike quality of O’Brien’s stop-motion effects, versus Weta’s slick, photorealistic animation. As much as I appreciate the vast computer-generated palette that Jackson and his team had to work with, I can’t help but miss the low-tech, innocent charms of the 1933 original.