Compare/contrast essay on the 1933 original King Kong and its 2005 remake.
|The year is 1970. New Zealand. A young boy sits riveted to the tiny screen of a home television, his eyes full of awe and excitement. He dares not look away. An exhilarating journey through an incredible world captivates him. Quite unaware of his surroundings, he is totally mesmerized by the film, almost becoming a character himself in the sprawling narrative. He is watching none other than King Kong, the classic, the original, the adventure that held so many hearts in its firm grasp, and now too held his own. Following the film’s awesome climax and Kong’s devastating fall, the boy can do nothing but succumb to tears.|
Director Peter Jackson would later cite this incident as the major catalyst of his desire to make movies, starting a homemade version of the film the very next day. While the project sadly never made it to the big screen, during the mid-90s Jackson completed a script for a remake of the classic. The film even got so far as pre-production, but was eventually shut down. This was due to the recent Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young films. Both being remakes of monster movies, interest was expected to be at a minimum. However, after his success with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson finally got the chance to remake his childhood fantasy. Released in 2005, Peter Jackson’s King Kong received a favorable welcome from fans and critics, but it was not without its share of deviations. Of course, the original was made over seventy years ago when films and their audiences were quite different from today, so the decision to update or even revise the film could hardly be considered arbitrary. But are Jackson’s changes merely cosmetic, or has he tampered with the very structure of the legend?
When the original King Kong opened in 1933, it was a time when the motion picture industry was still in its infancy. Film’s main purpose was to produce entertaining spectacles, and was hardly considered an artistic medium. King Kong more than fit this bill, wowing audiences with spectacular locations and revolutionary special effects. Inspired by such literary works as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot, the story of a wild beast and a prehistoric land was both fantastical and terrifying, and audiences lovingly devoured every second of it. It was an instant classic, and was even selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1991, being deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. Despite these much-lauded endeavors, however, the film is not without its drawbacks. The characters and plot are hopelessly routine, built heavily on tried and true Hollywood clichés. There is a love story. There is a damsel in distress and her knight in shining armor. There is a giant monkey that fights dinosaurs. Not exactly Shakespeare. While this is certainly understandable of the age, some might find King Kong’s lack of depth suitable only for nine year-olds, and a precursor to the action-packed blockbusters that plague our movie theaters every summer. Others still will testify that these shortcomings only emphasize the film’s theme, one of an earnest and pure adventure.
Not Peter Jackson. His $207 million homage to his rosebud of movies clocks in at 188 minutes, nearly twice that of the original’s hour and a half running time. While the plot remains largely unchanged, the addition of several new characters and an hour-long first act create a scale that can only be referred to as massive. Every minute detail was painstakingly developed and crafted to bring the voyagers of the USS Venture and the creatures of Skull Island to life, giving Kong and company their most realized screening to date. Actual gorillas were monitored for Kong’s movements and mannerisms. Extensive research was conducted to create an accurate Depression-era Manhattan, resulting in costumes, sets, props, and actors all looking as though they could have come straight out of Vaudeville. Even the original film was used as a guidebook of sorts; Jackson’s remake is littered with subtle references throughout. Everything from the characters’ names, lines, and even entire scenes pay homage. One such scene is when two principle characters meet in a café. Their discussion is one of a movie director in dire need of a leading lady and a starving actress in equal need of apples. Not only is the location identical to the 1933 version, but the dialogue also remains unchanged. Another example involves the adventurers filming on ship. While the setting recalls that of the original, the scene they are recording was not shown as a “movie in a movie” in the 1933 version, but was an actual scripted event taking place in the context of the story. Perhaps greater than all of these advances, though, was the monumental task set upon the special effects team to create a plausible and convincing titular character, requiring much more of him than to simply roar and boister about. This time around, Kong was going to need acting lessons.
Jackson’s characters are much more robust and complete than their previous iterations, even the ship’s cook seems to have some sort of background and story to tell. But its Jack Black’s Carl Denham and Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow that truly shine; and, of course, the King himself. Denham, the mastermind behind the expedition to find and capture Kong, is wonderfully portrayed as a devious, conniving, and even maniacal movie director, readily willing to selflessly sacrifice the needs of others for the sake of his picture. He isn’t terribly far removed from his original design, but Black’s sporadic wit and charm bring a refreshing life to the character. Ann, on the other hand, has evolved quite a bit over the last seventy years. No longer simply the damsel in distress, Ann is shown as a strong, determined woman who, in probably the biggest and most welcome departure from the original, comes to sympathize and care for Kong. Though their relationship is utterly fantastic, the two share something unique. While this “beauty and the beast” motif was present in the 1933 version, it was nowhere near as pronounced as it is in Jackson’s. Ann and Kong’s previous association was less than chivalrous. Although Kong does rescue Ann from a horrific death on numerous occasions, he is never painted in any other light than monster. Not once is there ay sentimentality directed towards him. Jackson, on the other hand, took this concept and ran with it. The relationship between his Ann and Kong is a genuine one, with both characters growing and maturing throughout the film. No doubt thanks to the monkey’s three-sizes-too-big heart.
It is truly a commendable feat that the mere computer generated Kong is able to evoke emotions and communicate with the audience, creating a wholly realized and believable character. Much of the credit falls to actor Andy Serkis, who donned a skin-tight suit covered in tiny dots to realistically record Kong’s movements using motion capture technology. Sensors were applied to Serkis’ face as well, and the sheer accuracy of Kong’s resulting facial expressions reveal a depth and heart that is seldom seen in any characterization, animated or live-action. This is a stark contrast to Kong circa 1933, whose only Academy Award nomination was for “Best Fight Against Theropod” (which it won), but perhaps the reason for his brutal nature is lack of sufficient equipment. Though the original film made giant leaps and bounds in the special effects field, the level of technology was still just too primitive to create anything but a beast. The technique employed was stop-motion animation, which is the act of taking several sequential photographs of articulate models, and then playing them in order to give off the illusion of actual movement. Think clay animated Christmas specials and you’ve got it. While the absence of depth and character is felt, the clunky animation still makes for some good brawls. The seventy-year-old action sequences carry a surprising amount of punch, and are in many ways as exhilarating as Jackson’s elaborate encounters. It is also worth noting that much of Jackson’s inspiration comes from these scenes, many being staged in similar fashion.
As intriguing as all of this theatricality is, though, an important question still stands. Is it really needed in a movie about a giant monkey? This is where Jackson runs into some problems. It is clear that today’s audience requires more substance than their Hooverian counterparts, but even the minor characters are convoluted in some way and seem to have a greater meaning to their story arc. Not only is there the aforementioned Ann/Kong relationship, there’s also Jack, the leading man played by Adrien Brody, who fills the shoes of Ann’s main love interest. His inclusion is vital to be sure, but his role seems filler at best. There has been little to no development in his character over the last century; he remains a mere plot device and foil to Kong. The painful truth here is that his character is not uninteresting, he is in fact quite the opposite. There are even flashes of brilliance behind that wonderful schnoz. He is a developed and well-known playwright whose sly words have won Ann’s heart, but still for some reason seems unable to profess his love for her. This curios facet rides nicely alongside the rest of the story, until about halfway through the film when it is dropped like a bad bunch of bananas, seemingly in favor of completely superfluous subplots. A father/son relationship between the ship’s first mate and a young stowaway, a naïve assistant’s coming of age tale, and an anti animal cruelty message are just a few. These coupled with excessive use of slow motion solidify the film’s overly dramatic tone. Altogether, these eccentricities are extremely overwhelming; the film even feels like a soap opera at times.
Here the original prevails without contest. It is a true pleasure from start to finish, despite its age and projected audience. Although the roles are little more than caricatures, the acting synonymous with mozzarella, and the plot would most likely be found on Cartoon Network by today’s standards, something about the film just plain works, regardless of its simplicity. Indeed, this is by far its strongest point. The ease and overall whimsical nature of the film have an honest and youthful charisma that makes the old feel young at heart, and the young like blowing things up. Jackson’s does this also, only too often does it take itself seriously when the subject matter is anything but.
Unfortunately, the final word here is an ambiguous one; there will be no condemnation or accolade of either film. True, that Jackson’s ode does little to improve upon the classic, but neither does he do it any injustice. The production qualities are second to none, and it is still sheer joy to watch Kong slay his Jurassic foe by viciously severing the oversized lizard’s jawbone from its cranium. Jackson’s love for the tale is unmistakable, staying true to the wondrous epic that once opened a young kiwi’s eyes to the magical world of filmmaking, right down to Kong’s nothing short of iconic clash atop the Empire State. And while purists may balk at Jackson’s dramatization and the film’s length, one thing remains as certain today as it was in 1933. It wasn’t the airplanes that got him. It was beauty killed the beast.