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January 18, 2006
Those of us who are old enough to recall watching the original King Kong, the storied black and white version filmed before the concept of the sequel, remember seeing it for the first time, a Sunday afternoon television movie back when the entire film world was still colorless. The story, like its leading star, was enormous from the outset, penned as a loose adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's successful "The Lost World" and filmed with the intent of being a Hollywood blockbuster.

That original film is considered a classic today, and so many were left scratching their heads upon hearing that director Peter Jackson was planned to remake the vintage feature for his first post-Lord of the Rings project. Were there no new, exciting projects for Jackson to take on, or was he simply unaware of Kong's cinematic history?

The metaphorical epic had already been re-done back in 1976 with a then unknown glamour girl, Jessica Lange, and Tron start up Jeff Bridges (who would later go on to become The Big Lebowski's infamous "The Dude") cast in the lead roles. The seventies version of Kong was hardly memorable, exception given to Lange's come-hither look and the final showdown that took place with helicopters and rockets atop the then monumental and now über-iconic World Trade Center towers, which was pretty state-of-the-art at the time.

With film industry technology being in its infancy, the early efforts of 1930's director Merian Cooper leave the original Kong appearing jumpy and dated by today's box office standards. Perhaps the most enduring contribution of the original film was the hauntingly powerful musical score, written by famed Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner, which carried the film through its two dimensional, golden age Hollywood acting, and gave it a supernatural depth by making the terror come alive through sound. But, as Kong 2005's blonde heroine Anne Darrow made clear, good things never last.

Played skillfully by Naomi Watts, Anne Darrow's updated character might be personified as a cross between a modern Fay Wray and renowned chimpanzee behavioralist Jane Goodall. Jack Black is perfectly cast as financially harassed and self-absorbed New York movie producer Carl Denham, who's down on his luck and is left with nowhere but a lost map to turn. Black, under the directorship of the stout hearted Kiwi, seems more mature and believable than he has in past work, and the rocker/film-star gives an outstanding performance as an over-inflated ringmaster whose entrepreneurial karma is sidelined by blatant greed and nostalgic hubris run aground. CGI super stunt model and actor exhibitionist Andy Serkis deserves another crack at best supporting action figure for his dual versatility in playing not only the king of the apes, but the Cockney cook lumpy, who is eventually consumed by giant man eating tubeworms.

It's long been reported that Peter Jackson, New Zealand's favorite son since Sir Edmund Hillary and the South Pacific's answer to Steven Spielberg, has been longing to shoot an updated version of Kong since well before the founding his now ubiquitous Wingnut Productions and the opening of the WETA Works digital studio he unveiled for Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. A high-tech adaptation of King Kong was a concept approached and subsequently shelved by Miramax long before things went sour between Mr. Jackson and New Line Cinema, and the remake rights were gobbled up by Universal Pictures in default. By directly evoking a "Heart of Darkness" parallel, and having the creative smarts to have the character of a stow away (Jimmy) reading the Joseph Conrad text, Jackson echoes themes common to many great films like African Queen and Apocalypse Now. Kong is clearly no follower of Jackson's 2003 Return of the King but, by his own admission, Jackson recognizes the fact that "you can spend the rest of your life trying to top Lord of the Rings."

Kong is set appropriately against a depression-era backdrop, giving it the aire of a revisitation rather than a remake. By film's end it is clear that Jackson is not only adept at creating compelling horror, and edge of your seat gripping suspense, but capable of crafting rich cultural storytelling, clever foreshadowing and cutting-edge special effects utilizing lightning quick editing to keep up the pace. Jackson weaves a surprisingly multi-faceted plot, where Lost World monsters are juxtaposed with the self-determined superiority of modern humanity. "Don't worry folks, these chains are made of solid chrome steel!" cries an over-confident human handler, brandishing a lack of humility that the audience knows will soon face its consequences.

Drawing upon the timeless themes of man-versus-nature and the miracles of animal intelligence, Jackson's Kong takes a big, crushing step beyond the strides of typical sci-fi action blockbuster thrillers. The relationship between young starlit Anne Darrow and the twenty-five foot, chest beating, T-Rex crunching, oversized machismo gorilla is palpable on screen, an emotional pool deeper and more sincere than one would have expected from the offspring of the kitschy 1930s original. With the exception of a flat performance by Adrien Brody, as Denham's screenwriter Jack Driscol, and the unfortunately inclusion of a few overly redundant dinosaur fights and stampede chases, the new Kong succeeds where other monster films usually bite off too much, choking at the box office and collapsing into early-A.M. replay spots on TBS. This is due in part to Jackson's critical eye for detail and his relentless, overly-excited school boy infatuation with adrenaline pumping explosions, spooky insects and cliff-hanging endings.

Under Jackson's command, Kong morphs from ferocious beast to a gentlemanly giant, with a sense of humor and a fetish for pale skinned belles. From the implausible sea journey to Skull Island to the story's dizzying climax and predictable fall from the Empire State building, Kong's most genuine theatrical value comes from the way the director de-vilifies Kong and transforms him from a hairy, antagonistic beast into a furry, sympathetic protagonist. The beauty of Jackson's work is that he spins preconceptions of Kong in a matter of only a few short takes.

In the end, we can't help but feel empathy and compassion when a terse news reporter incorrectly attributes Kong's downfall and ultimate demise to the fact that "he was just a big dumb animal." It's clear that Darrow and her one time nemesis are indeed having an intimate relationship, rooted in more than mere infatuation. The odd couple's bond comes from the friendship and security which they mutually provide each other.

One of the givens with remakes is the fact that audiences know exactly where a film is headed before the house lights dim, but with Peter Jackson's King Kong moviegoers are compelled to remain at attention, riveted for over three hours. Kong's heart-pounding action and underpinnings of emotional atonement make willing captives of us all, but it does so in a way that far exceeds the scope of the original while still paying homage to it.

Like Kong, "the beast" who "looked upon beauty and lowered his hand," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences owes a nomination for Best Picture not only to Peter Jackson but to the art of cinematic blockbusterdom itself.

---
The 78th Academy Award nominations will be announced on Tuesday, January 31st, and winners will be presented with Oscars on Sunday, March 5th.

SEE ALSO: www.kingkongmovie.com

--
Hugh Slesinger
A teacher, naturalist and eco-conscious real estate agent living in Occidental, California, Hugh Slesinger occasionally publishes his insights on life with LAS.

See other articles by Hugh Slesinger.

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