Remake Rumble Review: King Kong (1933, 1976, 2005)

Did you know they made three major King Kong movies? I sure didn’t!

With the release of Kong: Skull Island this week I wanted to revisit one of the oldest monsters in movie history and show myself a couple of films I’d never seen before in the process!

Rumble in the jungle: let three titans clash!

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King Kong (1933)

A cinematic marvel to this day, King Kong is a technical masterpiece.

An ambitious director takes his crew and leading actress to a mysterious, uncharted island to make his new film. He believes a mighty beast resides there and it will be the focus of his story. Little known to him is that his fiction is about to become reality…

There are two ways of looking at King Kong: one is that it is outdated, wobbly and repetitive; the other is that this is one of the most ambitious and visually astounding films ever made.
Sure, the story of Kong is as old as time now, but for those unaware, the film follows the film crew as they chase down a fifty foot tall ape through the jungle after it kidnaps their actress Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray). The film’s climax involves Kong being transported to New York City as part of director Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong) show, only for the beast to break free and run riot.
You could argue that it is a repetitive sequence of: woman screaming – Kong fights monster – woman screaming – Kong fights a dinosaur – woman screaming – Kong destroys stuff in New York, but to do that is to not respect the art of film making. In fact despite all of its monster battles, King Kong becomes quite a somber experience towards its end, striking a chord with the nature of Man and why he does seemingly terrible things. Especially upon reflection, in this day and age, whether Kong deserved his fate or if human meddling forced it upon him… and further still, if the filmmakers themselves intended such a subtext or if it was only mere ambition.
It is a classic monster movie, yet it is twenty-one years older than Godzilla! Gojira being released in 1954. How incredible is that? Only predated by The Lost World in 1925, which was also thanks to special effects artist Willis O’Brien, who would then work on King Kong.
To say that this film’s effects have dated is folly considering we get films made now, eighty-three years on, which don’t last a year before looking dated! Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace? Hell, this year’s The Great Wall – with the backing of both American and Chinese production studios!

King Kong and the jungle he inhabits is achieved through groundbreaking stop-motion animation, long before monsters of this kind where readily seen (such as Greek mythology movie Jason and the Argonauts in 1963) and the time and dedication to the craft is clearly seen here. While much of the jungle set was metal and rubber, real plants were used also and apparently crew did not notice that a flower had bloomed through the long process of frame-by-frame animation. When running the footage the flower bloomed at unreal speed, forcing the filmmakers to ditch a day’s worth of animation!
The planning of shots and composing of special effects must have been painstaking, trying to achieve realistic shots that involve miniatures and live-action actors as well as matte painted backgrounds.
Kong himself was achieved with both an eighteen inch model, built with a metal skeleton rubber muscle and rabbit fur (imagine the outrage if done today…) and a twenty foot tall head animatronic that housed three men operating his facial features.

Of course the craft of these things can be dissected easily today, but considering the country was in the middle of The Great Depression… the worst economic downturn in Western history… this effort is no only incredible but miraculous!

King Kong is a marvel of a bygone era in filmmaking. Sure, it is old and outdated, the characterisation is simplistic and has by-the-numbers acting. But when we literally have the same movies being made after 2016 and them being praised as kings of movie making, why should we look down upon the original King?

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King Kong (1976)

Did you know this film existed? Because I know I didn’t!

An oil tycoon believes he has struck it big with the discovery of a hidden island, but with an activist stowaway aboard and rumours of terrifying legends on the island… his plans of a rich future are about to change.

Who knew that the 2005 Peter Jackson film wasn’t the first remake of the 1933 film? A film directed by the same man who made The Towering Inferno, starring Jeff Bridges, debuting Jessica Lange with music by John Barry. With the climax of the movie not on the Empire State, but on the World Trade Center building… This was something to see!

Due to its unknown quality and 70s production, I feared the worst. The film does have some glaring issues – primarily screenplay problems and some acting – but I was impressed at how respecting the film was to the character of Kong, and the high production value!
It is clear that a lot of money and effort went into John Guillermin’s effort at King Kong. Similar attention to detail was given to the titular character as had been seen in the 1933 film; multiple animatronics where built including a “life size” forty foot replica, as well as four “ape suits” worn by none other than Rick Baker to implement much of Kong’s movements and presence in the movie. One of Baker’s earliest film works, he would go on to work in hundreds of projects, from effects in Star Wars: A New Hope to TRON: Legacy and Hellboy.
There is nothing amiss with the practical effects, in fact it is mightily impressive work! Kong is expressive and thanks to the man-in-a-suit work much more mobile and believable. Kong attacking an L train is incredible work. There are shots here that are better than some modern CGI.

The film isn’t as repetitive as the 1933 film either. The story goes through different settings and provides characters with more to work with; casing point being the young Jessica Lange’s Dwan interacting with Kong. She isn’t screaming her head off every scene, instead we get a far more emotion-filled Kong; he is less of a monster and more of what we know today. An animal in love and protective of a woman.
Kong only fights one other monster in the entire movie, because the filmmakers knew they only needed one to show Kong’s defense of Dwan. There’s even tender moments, such as when he holds her in a waterfall to wash herself.
By the film’s conclusion… it is very clear that the filmmakers want us to feel sympathy for the monster. Wow. The ending is brutal and relentless. No posturing, no: “It was beauty that killed the beast!” No ambiguity… mankind is a cruel, materialistic monster.

I liked it a lot.

But…
This film is incredibly clumsy.
The first act is rife with screenplay issues that never quite go away and a unbelievable setup. While the hunt for oil is a tried-and-true incentive, finding a gorgeous woman in an evening dress, soaked to the bone in a dinghy in the middle of the ocean… what? The perplexingly named Dwan is an actress (hinted as having questionable reputation) who starts out as an irritating floozy. Another early issue is Jeff Bridges character Jack, whose eco-warrior friend-of-the-animals apparently knows all.
There’s heaps of issues that make you question what you are seeing. The natives of Skull Island are inside an impenetrable off sixty foot high wall. Our characters just magically find their way in through the power of editing. Or when Dwan gets herself kidnapped, extremely silently and efficiently, somehow the natives left a necklace behind at the scene.

Just numerous strange moments of “Huh?” that stem from the screenplay drag the movie down. Like Dwan and Jack acquiring a motorcycle because the man riding it saw Kong and thought it better to ditch the bike and flee on foot.

The music, I am sorry John Barry, it doesn’t fit. What with the tropical island and beautiful girl, I thought I was watching a Bond film half the time. The pacing too was sluggish. The film is thirty minutes longer than the original film and honestly… you could easily cut thirty minutes from this.

But altogether, this wasn’t a bad remake! The effects have only dated in that they are composite shots and the blue-screen often leaves much to be desired, but considering the scale of the practical effects and the decent modernising of the story, I can let that slide.
If only the screenplay was tighter, the script better and maybe the pacing would have improved, then I would say this was a success. A very… eco-friendly success.

Although it loses half a mark by having a promotional tagline: “The Most Exciting Original Motion Picture Event of All Time.”
Original, eh?

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Additional marshmallows: Asides Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, there are a couple of surprising faces in here. Ed Lauter – one of those actors you see in virtually everything – and Rene Auberjonois – Trekkies know him from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Additional, additional marshmallows: Did he call the island natives “wogs”?? 😮

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King Kong (2005)

Just because Kong is over-sized himself, doesn’t mean the film needs to follow suit!

Peter Jackon’s remake of the classic movie follows director Carl Denham’s insane journey to Skull Island to direct his motion picture with young starlet Ann Darrow. But along the way they encounter Kong, and Denham’s ideas take a turn for the profitable.

I hadn’t seen Jackson’s King Kong from 2005, and I remember why I didn’t bother… This film is over three hours long! It is over twice as long as the original movie!

Upon completing the mighty and hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson was a shoe-in for Universal’s period remake of the classic 1933 movie. What little did we know this was the start of the man who would make The Hobbit trilogy… an overlong, overblown and full of filler experience that denies the viewer what they really want. Why make a film so long if you aren’t going to actually add anything?

That’s probably starting out a little strong… This does add some elements that improve the story, such as Ann Darrow’s interactions with Kong; landing somewhere between the 1933 and the 1976 films, respecting the scenes of the original, but not having Ann (Naomi Watts) constantly screaming her head off. Also Carl Denham, here played by Jack Black (bizarrely enough) is given a much more corrupted edge; he drags his camera across the island, filming everything including grisly deaths. The idea that Man is the villain is as well realised as it was in the 1976 film but in the 1933 film’s setting. It was great to see these two characters being revived with more gravitas and gusto.

Some of the action set pieces too are excellent. Kong versus the tyrannosaurus (such a classic piece of film in the original, and ignored in the 1976 film) is double-downed here with three Tyrannosaurs! Despite my gut feeling, it didn’t get tiresome in its escalation. That scene and another truly Lovecraftian moment at the bottom of a chasm, with weird toothed worm monsters! Gross! That was disturbing, reminding us of Jackson’s old horror movie origins.

That said… with the exception of Kong himself (motion captured by Andy Serkis and cementing his work as a motion capture artist) looking exceptionally real to this day with the most subtle of emotions visible, the layering and composite effects are dating already. This film is only twelve years old, and it looks as badly layered as the 1976 film at times. Especially during an escape scene where our bumbling men are in the middle of a stampede of brachiosaurs and velociraptors. Overly ambitious. It looked incredibly weightless. Plus the humans in a lot of scenes are invulnerable; from Adrian Brody’s Jack Driscoll being hit several metres by a triceratops to Naomi Watts’ own Ann being violently shaken by Kong! Seriously, her neck would be broken.

There a lot of unnecessary comedy that for me just fell flat, especially early on. It takes the characters nearly an hour to arrive on the island. An hour! Do we really need the manly star of Denham’s film front-loading this film by how narcissistic and shallow he is? Just once is enough. Plus a lot of slow-motion and deliberate dropped frames, which only occurs in the first hour or so and never again. Why? They aren’t being affected by the One Ring, we don’t need slow-mo.
Given the huge amount of time dedicated to the ensemble cast, I would have expected to feel more for them. Jamie Bell’s newcomer character, Jimmy, feels altogether unnecessary. Even the boat crew’s dedication to run back into the fray after Ann is kidnapped felt unprovoked considering their reluctance earlier.

You could easily cut a whole hour from this movie and it would be better for it. The shame is that much is extremely commendable; the design work around the island natives’ home is awesome and makes a lot more sense than both of the previous films (why have a giant door as a weakness that Kong can exploit, when you can have a chasm?) The depiction of 1930s New York and the characters of the time are all excellent, I had no trouble believing in the time period.

But, over 180 minutes is not something I need to give up for just a monster movie, despite how excellent much of it looks. Especially when so much of it is brainless filler designed to stall anything relevant from happening.

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