The Barenaked Archives – King Kong

King Kong PosterFrom 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

I’ve never seen the original King Kong, but because of Peter Jackson’s involvement with the remake, it was one of my most anticipated movies of the whole year. Saying I “loved” Lord of the Rings is a bit of an understatement. I saw all three movies multiples times in theaters and own both the theatrical versions and extended editions on DVD.

Even if you get nothing else out of those films, you can’t deny Jackson has an incredible respect for the source material. Since he’s long said King Kong was the movie that made him want to direct, I never had any doubt that he’d handle it well.

King Kong is certainly a visual feast, but beyond the dinosaurs, giant bugs, and titular rampaging ape, there’s actually a touching story that makes the movie worth the three-hour runtime.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling actress in 1930s New York City, and she’s just lost her last steady paycheck. Just when she’s most desperate, she’s recruited by ambitious director Carl Denham (Jack Black) to be the lead actress in his new picture and agrees only because her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), has written the screenplay. But becoming part of this movie requires boarding the steam ship Venture and beginning a journey to an uncharted island where dangers beyond darkest nightmares await.

Fully half the movie takes place on Skull Island, and they make the most of every single minute of it. From the minute the Venture arrives and tries to navigate the fog-shrouded, rock-filled waters surrounding the island to their attempts at capturing Kong, the movie pulls you to the edge of your seat, excepting a couple of small, tender moments between Ann and Kong that are almost too short.

Skull Island is just an all-around terrifying place, like a scarier, more primitive version of Jurassic Park. The natives are some creepy, creepy people who’ve spent so long living at the edge of this island and dealing with these terrifying creatures that they’ve become practically feral. The interior of the island is chock-full of dinosaurs and giant bugs and other things that only see humans as lunch. The fact that Kong has lived many years in this environment is clear from the scars on his skin and the fact that he’s still alive speaks to how awesomely badass he is.

The realism of this environment and its inhabitants is a testament to the excellent work of the special effects team, and there are plenty of “Holy crap that was cool” moments, including the fight between Kong and not one, but three T-rexes.

Of course, all the pretty effects in the world are worth nothing if you don’t have a good story and decent actors to back it up (I’m looking at you, George Lucas), and for me two people really stood out here: Naomi Watts and Jack Black.

Watts is absolutely mesmerizing as Ann. Despite the hard times she’s living in, she still has an aura of innocence and hopeful optimism about her. But when she’s captured in Skull Island, she adapts quickly and doesn’t just sit around waiting for the men to rescue her. She takes matters into her own hands, even if matters are keeping Kong entertained so he doesn’t eat her. Ann’s eventual trust in Kong and his love for her is the big emotional crux in the story, and it’s pulled off admirably.

Did I mention the woman can scream?

What most people worried about, however, was the casting of Jack Black. He’s a good actor, make no mistake, and most everybody I know enjoys his movies, but he’s almost always a very out-there, crazy kind of person, and a lot of people were wondering how he was going to play it in King Kong

Here, he tones it down and really nails Denham, a sneaky, ambitious showman with ambiguous ethics. Denham is a character you’re never sure if you should like or dislike. He lies to most of the cast of his movie and the crew of the ship about where they’re actually going (and about the studio’s knowledge of the trip). He’s willing to make huge gambles in order to get his film made, and then to come out of the voyage with some way to recoup his expenses.

Many of his lines have a funny/not-funny bent to them: for instance, when one of his crew members is killed when they first get to Skull Island, Denham vows to finish the picture and then donate the proceeds to the crew member’s family. When another crew member is killed later in Skull Island’s jungle, he makes a virtually identical vow. It’s something that inspires laughter, but it dies quickly as you ponder how much Denham actually cares about those who are being sacrificed in pursuit of this film.

Speaking of sacrifices, Jackson isn’t afraid to kill off people in this movie. Skull Island is a dangerous place, and it shows by the number of people who are trampled, eaten, thrown into walls, speared, bashed, or just fall off cliffs.

Fortunately, the movie loses none of its momentum when it moves back to New York for the climax of the film. Here the dangers are man-made, and you start to feel sorry for Kong. He’s gone from being master of his domain to a sideshow attraction, and there’s only one person in the whole of New York who will understand. The ending sequence is utterly heart-wrenching, in part because of its inevitability.

King Kong is a big movie, and it’s not concerned with brevity. It’s immersing you into the world, hopefully enough so that you don’t want to leave. It demands to be experienced on the big screen, and you would do well not to miss it.

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