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The UnPopular Opinion: Peter Jackson's King Kong

09.19.2012

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

If I could have lived a thousand years ago, or even three hundred years ago, I would have been an explorer.  I've always been etranced by the idea of discovery, and of wondering at that which I had discovered, and then entrancing audiences in turn with tales of my wondrous discoveries.  Provided I didn't die of dysentary first.  But we no longer live in a world where that sort of discovery is possible - the epic journeys into uncharted lands are gone.  There are, as has been said, no blank spots on the map left to discover for someone like me who isn't a fan of far-below-freezing temperatures.

Which is why Peter Jackson's KING KONG was such a revelation to me.  It captured that sense of mystery and adventure after which I chased as a child, and it transported me to a lost world in a way only matched thus far by those exciting adventure writers of old: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs.  They managed to entrance my imagination just as I hope one day to do for others, and Peter Jackson more than ably continued their tradition with his film that was as much remake as it was original creation.  And therein lies what I find to be both the greatest strength and the greatest fault of the film.  But more on that in a moment.

Unpopular Opinion King Kong 1

"There is still some mystery left in this world, and we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket."

Fundamentally, KING KONG works beautifully as a sprawling adventure.  For over forty minutes the tension builds and the tone shifts as we drift further and further from one wonder (that of a New York City from days gone by) and closer and closer to another (that of an island estranged from both the characters' world and our own).  Our own hopes and fears have grown along with those expressed by the characters, meaning that when we arrive at the island it is nearly unimaginable that it can meet our inflated expectations.  And yet it does, with a lost civilzation and a dinosaurs and various other megafauna accosting our heroes at every turn.  Even with the preparation the trailer gave me in regards to the surprises lying in wait upon the island, I still found myself gleefully (and fearfully) discovering each element of the island as though it was for the first time. 

And not only is there an abundance of surprises in terms of the creatures that populate this landscape - I found myself equally startled and intrigued by the way they existed.  Jackson took my expectations and gave me a final product that slightly twisted and strongly improved on what I had in my head going in, overlaying the creatures with fantastic design/tech work and filling them with life and character.  Wonky Apatosaurus stampede aside.  And Kong himself of course cannot be argued with - Andy Serkis' performance worked in perfect cohesion with the skill of Weta's artists to create a truly memorable creature.  Character.  Performance.  All of the above and more.  Whatever you choose to call it, it was genius, and if anything it covers everyone and everything else in the film in a Kong-sized shadow.  As with The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, whenever Kong is off screen I find myself chomping at the bit for him to come back.

Unpopular Opinion King Kong 2

"The beast looked upon the face of beauty. Beauty stayed his hand, and from that moment he was as one dead."

And perhaps that too is indicative of one of the film's greater problems - Kong himself is specific and well defined, whereas it might be said the film itself wanders and/or is a bit overstuffed.  It's as though Jackson crammed in every idea his team had, forcing the story to serve the world rather than the other way around.  And while this criticism may seem hypocritical in relation to what I've just said, I don't think the two are mutually exclusive.  I love that the adventure sprawls the way it does, but I also recognize that there are some issues with KING KONG's structure and the way Jackson elected to fill the story out.  There are definitely places I would trim things, especially in the action and chase sequences that generally go on longer than is necessary, but with this sort of story I'm also willing to make let it slide because I personally would rather have too much of this kind of adventure.  One of the great powers of cinema is its ability to transport us and transform us, and considering the material that made up the bulk of my childhood fantasies I'll ever be appreciative that Peter Jackson chose to include all that he did.

While we're talking about criticism, this seems as good a time as any to hearken back to the observation I made earlier - the similarity between Peter Jackson's KING KONG and the adventure novels I read as a kid.  Books are built to be picked up and put down, they can take days to read, and are built in such a way so as to constantly keep the reader hooked over a longer period of time.  And because they have that extended period of time in which to develop all of the plot and character threads that movies lack, books (especially the adventure kind) have action scenes or notable events occuring on a fairly consistent basis.  And so: Jackson's take on KONG is structured more like an adventure novel rather than an adventure movie, meaning that all of the creatures and events and action sequences come at such an unforgivingly constant pace that it borders on overwhelming.  Some such as myself enjoy it nonetheless, accepting the stretches Jackson makes equally with our attention and adrenaline in return for getting lost in a vast adventure.  Others don't dig it so much, wishing instead for something more traditionally cinematic, and that's very much okay too.

Unpopular Opinion King Kong 3

"I'm finished."
"How did you think this would end, Carl?"

With Jackson and WETA involved the design of KING KONG is universally superb, with little touches present everywhere you look.  Jack Black turns in what is actually quite a fun larger-than-life performance (though I loathe hs early line about "crappers"), matched by a performance of heartbreaking desperation and hopeful longing from Naomi Watts.  The supporting cast is solid as well, doing the best they can with characters who receive a relatively one-dimensional treatment in favor of Jackson's main interest of Skull Island.  James Newton Howard's score is serviceable without being overly memorable, though in the same way as with THE DARK KNIGHT it is his work in the smaller moments that stands out the most (with Kong and Ann in Central Park being a personal favorite).

I don't think a review of KING KONG can go without mentioning the very blunt "Heart of Darkness" referencing that goes down in the film -  I personally take issue with the trope of people randomly being able to quote long passages from books/poems, but I still think it was a damn cool idea to try and implement. The commentary on humanity's monstrosity and the unwitting destruction of the magical kingdom is very front and center with KING KONG, and I think its admirable that Jackson found it worth his time and effort to make such a statement on top of the wild adventure already at hand.

Could KING KONG have been a tighter movie? Absolutely.  Is it intriguing and engaging enough overall to make up for Jackson's moments of indulgence? I think so.  While I would argue that it is undeniably a step down from any one of the LORD OF THE RINGS films, it nonetheless is a massive accomplishment and a testament to a side of cinema that I haven't often seen on display in my lifetime.  And if I am ever fortunate enough to meet Peter Jackson, I can guarentee you that I will thank him profusely for giving me the chance to lose myself in an adventure epic of this scale.

Unpopular Opinion King Kong blue screen scene

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to ajstepenberg@joblo.com, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you wish, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!

Extra Tidbit: KING KONG was still a step up from Jackson's dreadfully silly adaptation of THE LOVELY BONES. Tucci was phenomenal, and the score was well worth a listen, but the rest of it? Ugh was that movie rough.
Source: JoBlo.com

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