Kong Retrospective: King Kong 2005

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Mar 9, 2017

King Kong 1976 was bad but made enough money to eventually merit a sequel in the form of King Kong Lives ten years later. That movie, also produced by Dino De Laurentiis is ... also bad. Thankfully, King Kong Lives tanked so hard it could've been called King Kong Dies, ha ha ha, I am hilarious.

With De Laurentiis out, Universal Studios would eventually regain King Kong, but it would take nearly 20 years before we'd see The Eighth Wonder of the World on the big screen again.

The wait would be worth it, though. And, like every other main King Kong movie before it, the Peter Jackson-directed 2005 version has a rich history behind it.

THE ABORTED 1996 ATTEMPT

Peter Jackson was working on The Frighteners when the giant gorilla hand of opportunity first knocked on his door. Universal was looking to resuscitate two of its properties and reached out to Jackson to see if he'd be interested. One was The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The other?

King Kong.

Peter Jackson was already a budding child filmmaker before he saw the original 1933 King Kong, but once he had his first taste of Kong, his whole world changed. Jackson had been focused on making mini war films but quickly transitioned to fantasy, science fiction and horror, honing his abilities as an amateur stop-motion animator.

Naturally, Jackson was very interested in making a King Kong reboot. He and his team began work immediately, crafting a script that was so similar to Brendan Fraser's The Mummy that they almost thought someone from The Mummy's team must have stolen a copy of their first draft.

They had a maquette of Kong fighting off three dinosaurs made which they gifted to Universal shortly before tragedy struck. Universal, seeing that both a new Godzillamovie and a Mighty Joe Young film as well were coming out, balked at the fear of coming in third place. They canceled the project and Jackson demanded they give back his Kong maquette. Both that statue and a number of other dinosaur models lived in Jackson's studio for many years collecting dust.

Of course, as any recent film historian knows, the loss of the Kong project was a blessing in disguise for Jackson who almost immediately began work on a new project: The Lord of the Rings.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS TWICE

During production for Return of the King, Universal revisited the idea of making a new King Kong movie. With Peter Jackson at this point being the name in big-budget filmmaking, naturally Universal hoped he would give them a second chance. As it happens, Jackson had never given up hope that one day he'd get another crack at Kong.

And so began one of the most expensive cinematic undertakings of all time. An over $200 million budget in 2005 was, like the 1976 Kong endeavor before it, a virtually unheard of price tag for a movie at the time. But to rebuild 1930s ships and tons of miniatures and models, plus to generate a cityscape, a jungle full of critters and King Kong himself in CGI -- you'd need a fortune to get it all done.

The work was extravagant. For example, the SS Venture, the ship from the original Kong, was rebuilt from a 1950s vessel. Extensive work had to be done to make this Venture look period accurate. Each major set piece involved that degree of detail. Jackson's approach often involved building small but incredibly detailed sets which would add tangibility for both the performers and the audiences before complex CGI renders were overlayed.

And then there was Kong himself, who went through so many physical revisions that, even when the first trailer was released, significant alterations were still being made.

But the money and attention to physical detail are only a small glimpse of why Jackson's King Kong works. And to understand both its successes and its challenges, we have to talk about the 2005 King Kong film as what it was ...

A LOVE LETTER TO THE ORIGINAL

To say that Peter Jackson adores King Kong would be one of the great understatements of cinematic history. To be clear, Jackson loves King Kong more than all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies combined. He has props and set pieces from the original film. He still has stop-motion designs he created as a child from when he tried to make an amateur King Kong picture of his own.

King Kong '33 was the film that made Peter Jackson the filmmaker he is and you can really, really tell by the King Kong movie he made in 2005.

Whether it's Ann Darrow stealing an apple, the film Carl Denham is making literally lifting lines from the 1933 original, or subtle allusions to original Ann, Fay Wray, and Kong producer, Merian C. Cooper, you can see the DNA of the original Kong throughout Jackson's remake.

Even the spider pit sequence was Jackson's way of bringing to life a scene that was supposedly cut from the original.

Unlike De Laurentiis' '70s version (which seemed to merely go through the motions of the original), Jackson's film is a near-obsessive response to Cooper's original. Even the changes feel less like required modern updates and more like thoughtful counterpoints and expansions to what came before.

The writer who falls in love with Ann Darrow, especially, feels like that artist trying to reach out and lovingly embrace his influences. After all, Jackson met with original Ann, Fay Wray, and professed that he'd been a bit in love with her as a young man. Is it any surprise that he would write his modern Ann Darrow as falling in love with her script-writer?

And on the topic of Ann Darrow, it's important to talk about ...

OUR LEADING LADY AND HER TALL, DARK COMPANION

Naomi Watts gives the performance of a lifetime as Ann Darrow. The work she did to learn vaudeville acts, to sing and dance, to act opposite a blue screen and make us believe she loves King Kong is nothing short of a revelation. King Kong can't work without Ann Darrow and Watts exudes the kind of effortless charisma that few actors seldom achieve.

And Andy Serkis, who once again plays an entirely CGI character, went to incredible lengths, too. He dressed like Kong on set to help Watts and the rest of the cast understand what they were playing off of. And when Jackson told Serkis he couldn't go to Rwanda to see gorillas in nature, Serkis snuck off one weekend anyway, which yielded more than just an incredible performance -- Serkis' video of those gorillas gave CGI artists some of their most important reference material to bring Kong to life.

Serkis and Watts developed during the course of filming one of the best rapports I've ever seen from two performers. And Serkis' dedication to capturing the sounds of Kong in his post-production ADR work was dedication beyond the point of his own physical health.

And all of that excludes the rest of the cast. Jack Black's brilliant turn as the cowardly, selfish and manipulative Denham is truly some of his finest work. Adrien Brody, Colin Hanks, Bruce Baxter ... there isn't a weak performance in the film.

So King Kong 2005 is the best King Kong movie ever, right?

THE ORIGINAL KING KONG IS STILL THE BEST

Wait, what?! I know. Settle. Peter Jackson made an incredible movie. As someone who has lived in NYC most of their life, I promise the way he recaptured 1930s New York is probably his greatest achievement, it's so perfect.

But all that love, all that obsession, came at a price. Peter Jackson's King Kong has one major, undeniable flaw -- it's waaaaaaaay too long.

No dig on Jamie Bell, Evan Parke or even Thomas Kretchmann, but Jimmy, Hayes and Captain Englehorn get way more screen time than is necessary. The former two are almost entirely superfluous, in fact. And losing Jimmy's subplot alone would've trimmed about 15-20 minutes off the end product.

And while I know this will ruffle many a feather, that very memorable spider pit sequence? It should've been trimmed or cut completely. Yes, it is memorable. Yes, it was Jackson bringing a long-lost scene from the original Kong to life. But, yes, it also serves zero narrative purpose. Any major character shifts and deaths from that scene could have been equally effective in any other Skull Island sequence. Sometimes you just have to kill your babies, friends. The spider pit is super creepy and super unnecessary to the plot.

If Peter Jackson had managed to make the hard choices and release a movie that came in at two and a half hours (or less, even), he would likely have made the King Kong movie to end all King Kong movies.

KING KONG 2005 IS STILL GREAT

The 3+-hour length and the fact that Jackson's Kong underperformed at the box office makes it a film that often gets overlooked. And that is a shame. Despite the one flaw, the 2005 King Kong is probably one of the best remakes ever made, and a truly profound achievement in its own right. The visuals, the performances and Kong himself are all a masterclass in modern moviemaking. Frankly, most filmmakers today could learn a lot from it.

And speaking of modern filmmaking, Kong: Skull Island is upon us and, truly, it is a testament to the modern shared-universe model of moviemaking that has become so popular. For better or worse, there will more Kong (and other giant monster) movies like it going forward. And some day there will even be a King Kong vs. Godzilla movie. Again. Because there was one of those already. Maybe I'll write something about it. Maybe.