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Special effects drive King Kong

By Lady Liberty
web posted December 19, 2005

King Kong

*** 1/2 out of ****

King KongI have a couple of confessions to make. First of all, I've never seen the original King Kong (yes, I know the 1933 film is a classic). I never saw the 1976 remake, either (I'm told I didn't miss much). That's because I frankly have just about zero interest in King Kong. So why did I see it this time around? That brings me to my second confession: I suspect I'd go see a movie based on the Yellow Pages if Peter Jackson's name was attached to it. My only compromise between these two extremes was waiting until Friday to see the film despite the fact it opened on Wednesday.

King Kong opens with two Depression-era parallel story lines. In one, actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is working in a struggling vaudeville theater while she has hopes to appear in something a little more secure and mainstream. Unfortunately, the theater's struggles are almost over as it's forced to close its doors due to a lack of attendance. Meanwhile, film producer and director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is trying to convince his financial backers that he has a saleable movie that only needs a little more footage to be complete. The backers don't buy it, either literally or figuratively.

Carl isn't about to give up. Even when his lead actress backs out, he's determined to cast whoever he can find that will fit into the already made costumes. He sends his faithful assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) to get their equipment and crew on board a boat he's secured to take them to a location shoot. Meanwhile, as he tries to stay one step ahead of the backers and their bankers, he looks for a replacement to star in his film. That's when he runs into the disconsolate Ann. Hungry and desperate, Ann agrees to listen to Carl's proposal. She's not convinced, but when Carl happens to mention his movie is being written by a playwright she admires, Ann agrees to sign on.

That evening, the ship hurriedly casts off with Ann, the movie's male lead, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), various crew, and writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) aboard. The boat's erstwhile Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) is dubious of both the filming process and whether or not he'll receive payment, but he grudgingly goes along as Carl begins to film new scenes as they come off Driscoll's typewriter. He's not nearly so cooperative, however, when Carl shows him he's found a secret map for an undiscovered island where he intends to film the last scenes of his movie!

Despite doubts and plenty of debate, the ship ends up almost by default on the shores of Skull Island, and that's where things really begin to go wrong. The ship runs aground, and while the crew works to repair the damage, Carl and his movie-making men go ashore. Thinking the island deserted, they take little care as they explore. But the natives are merely hiding and awaiting the opportunity to capture Ann for use as an offering to something — or someone — they call Kong.

In the end, the screaming Ann is, of course, taken by the giant ape who brings her deep into the heavily forested island interior. Some of the men mount a rescue mission only to discover their progress thwarted by everything from dinosaurs that somehow have survived and thrived into the modern era, to giant insects, to impassable terrain.

But while most of the men risk their lives for the kidnapped woman, Carl remains as mercenary as ever. It strikes him that, whether Ann lives or dies, capturing the giant ape could make his fortune once and for all. And when he gets Captain Englehorn on his side — he's a man who often makes cash by capturing and selling exotic animals — it's only a matter of time until the two execute their plan, heedless of the danger in their focus on fame and fortune.

Director Peter Jackson has said that he's wanted to remake King Kong ever since he saw the original film as a child. He even developed special effects treatments and ideas that would help him put the film together. Unfortunately, he couldn't find the financial backing he needed. He ended up using his ideas to make a little series of movies called The Lord of the Rings instead. Obviously, after the monstrous success LOTR represented, Jackson had little trouble finding people to invest in King Kong! All of Jackson's admiration for the original is evident in this remake, up to and including his loan of some one-of-a-kind Kong collectibles for use in the movie.

Naomi Watts is the perfect Ann Darrow. She's ethereal, yet somehow tough as nails. Adrien Brody isn't capable, I don't think, of a bad performance, and he certainly gives a good one here. Jack Black, better known for his comedic roles, is surprisingly effective as the larcenous Denham. Colin Hanks acquits himself well, and Kyle Chandler is actually a hoot as the preening movie star who only plays a hero on film. Can anyone possibly doubt, however, that the star of the film is Kong (Andy Serkis)? Using the same technique that turned Serkis into Gollum in the second and third of the LOTR trilogy, he became Kong in this film, and he became so completely and believably.

The special effects are superlative. From stampeding brontosauruses to hungry T-rexes, and from island chase scenes to Kong himself, it's all just as real as if it were, well, real. Extra kudos go to those who recreated the New York of the 1930's. Perhaps someone who was actually there could find something wrong with it, but I surely couldn't. It was extraordinary. Believe it or not, the only criticism I have involves the special effects. They're so good that I'm sure it was irresistible to include as many as possible, but there were several lengthy scenes I found unnecessary even as I couldn't help but admire their execution.

The storyline of King Kong still doesn't do much for me; it's simplistic and predictable at best. And yet, despite that and the fact that the movie is just over three hours long, I couldn't look away from the screen even for a minute. I was entirely caught up in the movie from start to finish, even to the point where I cringed at the giant bugs and wept more than once for Kong. I don't think King Kong is Jackson's best film — but that's not really very fair when I think Jackson may have released the best movie of the last decade when he gave us The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Let's just say instead that Jackson's reputation for spectacular movie-making is still safe, clutched firmly in the hands of a giant ape.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: King Kong is rated PG-13 for "frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images." The realism of the special effects that make King Kong so believable are going to be precisely the problem parents will need to consider where the younger set is concerned. People and animals bleed and die, and it's very, very real onscreen. As a result, I can't in good conscience suggest that those under about 9 or 10 see the movie. For everybody else, though, King Kong is an adventure and a half that's well worth the price of admission.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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