King Kong (2005) - Extended Edition
Peter Jackson's King Kong was generally well received by critics and made a fair bit of money, but the consensus was that it was too long. It was therefore quite bizarre to find Jackson releasing an extended version of the film, one that's around 15 minutes longer, on DVD. He pulled this trick off magnificently with the 'Lord of the Rings' extended editions, which in my opinion are definitive and superior to the original theatrical cuts. LOTR, however, is a story that actually warrants the extra running time and their original lengthy theatrical run-times weren't widely criticized to begin with. So did Jackson pull off the impossible by improving King Kong through additional scenes? Unsurprisingly the answer is 'no', but I love the film unreservedly nonetheless. I wrote briefly about the theatrical version here, but this is going to be a more in-depth review.
The plot is straightforward. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it begins with a vaudeville performer named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) losing her job. A chance encounter leads to her getting hired by unscrupulous film producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), who needed a leading lady on the spot for their upcoming film. The very night that she's hired Ann is rushed on board the S. S. Venture, which immediately sets sail for what everyone believes to be Singapore. In actuality Denham has discovered the location of a 'secret' and mysterious island where he plans to shoot his film, a location that he believes will elevate it to a masterpiece. Writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is unwittingly made a passenger by Denham so that he can write a script for the film en route to their destination. Tension builds between the filmmakers and the ship's crew, which is captained by a man named Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), when they learn that their true destination is a place called Skull Island, a place that some of the crew believe to harbour supernatural dangers.
And of course, the crew is right. When they get there, they discover the island to be populated by a primitive and savage tribe who hide away in a walled off corner of the island. The natives kidnap Ann and offer her up to the island's mightiest inhabitant, a giant ape - KONG! The middle act of the movie follows the relationship that develops between Ann and Kong (yes, between a woman and a giant ape, and no it's not as ludicrous as it sounds) as he protects her from the other dangerous creatures that inhabit the island. At the same time the crew of the Venture set out to rescue Ann and in the process of doing so are forced to face off against the many dinosaurs and other giant, deadly creatures of the island. What the last third of the film is about I shall not say, mainly because virtually everyone knows how the film ends, and for those few who don't it should make for an interesting surprise.
Woah, that took way more words than I anticipated. Much like Jackson's film takes way more time than many anticipated. Part of the reason the film runs for so long is that the script has, strangely enough, given too much depth to some aspects of the story, resulting in a film that is overlong. The opening montage is fantastic, but the scenes that follow leading up to the departure of the ship are clunky and run on for too long. Denham's dealings with his investors and his assistant are excessive, for instance. Once on board the ship, again, too much time is spent with members of the crew and activities on board that are essentially superfluous. Let me be clear that the quality of film making is great in these scenes, and they're not really slow moving either; it's just that they don't add much to the film and aren't really needed. We don't need this much characterisation for people who don't amount to much in the final analysis. Redundant and overlong scenes should have been trimmed at the script stage to be more appropriate for this type of story. This is also true for subsequent events on the island, where once again the accumulation of redundant and overlong sequences all add up to bloat the running time.
Having said all that, I personally enjoy most of the excess in the film, because it is just so well made and appealing to me! Truth be told, apart from the failings of the script that I've mentioned, everything else about 'King Kong' is great. Sure the plot has some gaping holes, but so did the original and given the genre it's easy enough to suspend disbelief. The presentation of scenes and the overall story structure are effective and were it not for the length this would be a very well constructed adventure film. The characters are fun, though some have too much of a presence. The relationship that develops between Ann and Driscoll is sketchy but sufficient to explain his commitment to finding her. The relationship between Denham and his ego, which drives them to the island and into danger, is much more fully developed and darkly humourous. The best of them all though is the relationship between Ann and Kong, but that I think comes down largely to the performances and Jackson's work as director.
If there's one thing Jackson doesn't do all that well in this film, it's the action sequences, particularly the ones involving the rescue party. They drag on for too long and are often bereft of any genuine sense of danger and are thus unexciting. The stuff involving Kong is much better, especially the T-Rex battle and the confrontation with the biplanes, though even these go on a bit too long. In every other department though, Jackson fires on all cylinders once again! The drama is fantastic, and the relationship between Kong and Ann is stellar, believable and touching. He successfully presents them as kindred spirits who are connected together through a sense of loneliness and melancholy. The way Kong is presented is fantastic - both vicious and monstrous but also sympathetic and gentle. Kong is anthropomorphized but never to such an extent that you forget he's a beast, a fine balance that Jackson pulls off perfectly. While the film has a slightly goofy comedic tone, there is still plenty of tension and the horror and 'creepy' aspects of the film are superb. The humour is skillfully and unobtrusively integrated and the net result is the ideal tone for an adventure film.
Jackson's casting for Kong is almost as good as with 'Rings'. Watts is simply wonderful in the role of Darrow, transforming from delicate and haunted to sweet and charming and, ultimately, to tough as nails in order to survive the island, and she's absolutely convincing throughout. Then there's Andy Serkis, Gollum himself, who once again creates a simply incredible character out of a CGI skin. He doesn't get to speak this time, but actions speak louder than words and his combination of movements and expression make Kong a bona fide living, breathing character. Brody is pretty good as Driscoll, and the film plays up the fact that he's a nerdy sort of hero, which is a characterization that fits the actor to a T. Though he seemed to divide audiences, I found Jack Black to be great in his role as the scheming, manipulative, and insensitive producer, and his comic timing was restrained and entertaining. Kretschmann and Kyle Chandler also have memorable turns as Captain Englehorn and vane movie star Bruce Baxter. As for the remaining supporting players, they are effective in their occasionally overwritten roles.
The production values are, for the most part, exemplary. The authentic and atmospheric re-creation of a bygone era and creation of a fantastical island through a combination of sets, props, costumes, and special effects is nigh on flawless. It's a lavish production. The special effects, though, vary wildly - they are at times brilliant, at others embarrassingly awful. The Kong effects are incredible and after a while you just accept that you're looking at a giant ape; the re-creation of New York is tremendous; much of the island's creatures are flawlessly disgusting. Some of the dinos though - like the brontosaurs and raptors - are weak, and the integration of humans into scenes with them (such as the stampede) is appalling. The overall impression of the effects one is left with when the credits roll is a good one, but the failings really are an egregious blemish on the generally brilliant FX work seen throughout. The whole film is wrapped up in the excellent score by James Newton Howard, who delivers some rousing adventure music coupled with some more delicate emotional themes.
Ultimately Jackson's 'King Kong' is ambitious, spectacular, and flawed. It's like nothing else out there, that much is for sure. I've watched it several times now, and the extended version mostly serves to add in a few weak action scenes that don't help the film but don't really detract much from the original experience either. It's a delightful mix of action, adventure, horror, disaster, and drama all existing in an aura of fantastical heightened reality. He hasn't hit the highs of the Rings trilogy, but it's more often closer than not, which is saying something. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a film I'll be revisiting many many times in the future.