After the huge success of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” acclaimed director Peter Jackson had to decide whether to make a bigger or smaller film. But when the opportunity presented itself, Jackson jumped at the chance to remake King Kong. Kong was a passion project that he initially worked on before diving into Middle-earth. However, now armed with a budget of over $200 million, he could do more or less whatever he wanted without nervous executives looking over his shoulder.

Peter Jackson’s original pitch for Kong was more in the vein of the rollicking 1999 film The Mummy starring Brendan Frasier. This approach was enough for the aspiring director of “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners.” However, by 2003, Jackson was a critically acclaimed and award-winning filmmaker. A simple, crowd-pleasing blockbuster wouldn’t be enough.

So Jackson has put together a thrilling action-adventure/drama with state-of-the-art special effects, an expansive cast, gorgeous visuals, and a Kong-sized runtime that’s more reminiscent of Titanic than The Mummy. Jackson’s Kong was big, bold, poetic, and relied heavily on many of the same visual flourishes and storytelling techniques that made LOTR a groundbreaking banger.

Unfortunately, the eighth wonder of the world failed to beat competition at the box office, namely the runaway successes “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” “Kong” hit theaters on Dec. 14 and grossed $218 million domestically and $556 million worldwide — not bad, but a far cry from the billions that “The Return of the King” grossed.

Jackson overestimated Kong’s universal appeal – audiences clearly like the big guy, as Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla vs. Kong will attest. Just not enough to sell billions of dollars worth of tickets at the box office.

First reaction

I couldn’t wait for King Kong. Aside from Revenge of the Sith, it was my most anticipated film of 2005. I grew up with King Kong and Godzilla and really wanted to see them come to life with the right special effects. I saw “The Return of the King” twelve times in the cinema. Yes, 12. I was fascinated by Peter Jackson’s filmmaking and couldn’t wait for his encore. I looked at interviews and production diaries; I purchased the soundtrack and double DVD of the original King Kong, in which Jackson meticulously recreated the Spider Pit sequence. My brother and I ran to GameStop to buy the PS2 adaptation of the movie. Check out these stunning images:

Damn, that was a long time ago. I digress. Did the remake live up to the hype?

Sadly, no.

I enjoyed King Kong – well, most of it. The special effects were stunning and the action was larger than life. I was pleased, but not blown away. Multiple viewings did not change my perspective. King Kong was good, and that was about it. Sure, I bought the DVD, then the special edition DVD and the Blu-ray. The film always remained in my collection, but I ignored it over the years, except for snippets I saw on TV.

But almost 20 years later, I decided to fire up King Kong one Saturday night and was quite surprised.

On the second watch

A few weeks ago, in desperate need of something to entertain my 8-year-old daughter, I clicked on King Kong and promised her an adventure with lots of monsters. While it finally stopped after the first 60 minutes, Kong’s spectacle grabbed my attention and never let go.

The first hour helped me with this run. I appreciated Jackson’s efforts to portray engaging, well-rounded characters such as Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a struggling actress desperate for a break, and Carl Denham (Jack Black in a criminally underrated performance), a down-on-his-luck director willing to risk everything for his craft, and Jack Driscoll (a miscast Adrien Brody), a writer-turned-hero who falls in love with Ann.

Less appealing is the strange relationship between Evan Parkes Hayes and Jamie Bell’s Jimmy. Jackson and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens take great pains to breathe life into the two sailors, but provide nothing in return for their overly dramatic arguments. Hayes dies and Jimmy disappears in the third act.

The same goes for Kyle Chandler’s goofy Bruce Baxter, an arrogant actor who predictably tucks his dick and runs away when shit hits the fan. Surprisingly, he redeems himself with a last-second rescue, but then inexplicably reverts to his smug ways in the third act and starts acting like an idiot again.

Jack’s journey has just as many bumpy parts. Depending on the demands of the scene, the man transforms from arrogant writer to invincible hero. Ann unfairly brushes him aside, even though he is willing to travel through hell to save her life. Their climax hug feels a little forced.

Other negative films include the infamous Brontosaurus Rush, which looks just as bad today as it did in 2005. Peter Jackson was under intense pressure to the point of exhaustion to finish the film by Christmas, leaving several effects rushed or unfinished. Some parts of this sequence look great, but the integration of the actors (who are clearly running on treadmills in front of green screens) never really convinces.

As mentioned above, the third act ultimately jettisons most of the characters we spend so much time getting to know. The original King Kong uses a similar time jump and works because we only care about Ann (Fay Wray), Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) and Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No time is wasted on the supporting cast, who mostly serve as monster fodder. In Jackson’s Kong I wanted to see what happened to Jimmy, Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) and Preston (Colin Hanks). What impact did the trip to the island have on your personal life? Why shouldn’t they show up at Carl’s presentation? Why should we spend so much time caring about trivial characters?

King Kong is far from perfect, but it excels where it matters most: the relationship between Ann and Kong. Watts (who deserves more credit for her stellar work here) goes all out and believably captures Ann’s turmoil – she’s a woman who is inexplicably in love (so to speak) with a giant ape. The fact that we feel sorry for Ann and care for her speaks volumes about Watts’ performance.

Then there’s Kong himself, a magnificent creation who ranks alongside Gollum and Caesar as one of the greatest all-CGI characters ever conceived. Coincidentally, all three characters are played by the great Andy Serkis. Kong looks incredible, right down to his expressive eyes and ragged, battle-scarred fur.

And in dramatic moments, like when Ann and Kong take a break from the hustle and bustle to go ice skating at Christmas:

You never doubt the couple’s feelings for each other, as crazy as that may sound. As Jackson focuses on this relationship, King Kong soars. Too often he goes into horror mode unnecessarily with moments like the spider pit that distract from the narrative:

Jackson also recreates the classic protocol sequence from the original Kong. Except here, the beat leaves us scratching our heads. Should Kong be a monster or a gentle giant? The V-Rex fight takes place immediately after Kong murders Ann’s friends – should we root for the giant ape or fear him?

Doesn’t matter. As we reach the climactic third act, Peter Jackson is firing on all cylinders and proving why he is one of the best in the business. Here the director combines exciting action with tender character accompaniment and covers the whole thing with a tragic foreboding. When Kong climbs the Empire State Building, it is portrayed as an inevitable outcome resulting from his attraction to a beautiful woman. His fate had long since been sealed.

Then comes the film’s best set piece: Kong versus a squadron of heavily armed aircraft, a sequence that ranks among the most incredible action scenes in modern cinema. This is where Weta’s VFX really shines; From the subtle glow of the sunrise to the breathtaking aerial views of New York, everything is on display. I live for this kind of cinema and I’m surprised it didn’t affect me as much at previous screenings.

Make no mistake: King Kong is flawed, bumpy, bloated, and disjointed. Jackson is stuck between two films – an action-packed monster movie and a complex drama. Nevertheless, King Kong is a real eye-catcher in most cases. It may not be the home run that Peter Jackson and Universal envisioned, nor does it reach the same heights as LOTR. Still, “King Kong” is an incredibly ambitious piece of filmmaking.

A tip and an apology to Mr. Jackson. You’ve made Kong proud.

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