Face-Off: King Kong 1976 vs. King Kong 2005

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

This Friday, one of cinema’s greatest, most iconic creatures will be making his (hopefully) triumphant return to the big screen in KONG: SKULL ISLAND, so this week’s Face-Off had to be all about Kong. For me, the 1933 version of KING KONG, which was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, is an untouchable classic, so rather than stack the deck against another film I decided to leave that one out of the mix and put its two remakes against each other: KING KONG 1976, directed by John Guillermin, and KING KONG 2005, directed by Peter Jackson. There will be references to the ’33 film throughout, but the battle is truly between ’76 and ’05.
You may disagree with the things filmmaker Carl Denham does in the 1933 KING KONG, but the set-up is good: wanting to make his next movie special, he leads an expedition to an uncharted island that is rumored to be home to the legendary, monstrous Kong. If that creature really exists, he wanted to get it on film. The leader of the ’76 expedition has his charm (he is played by Charles Grodin, after all), but I can’t get behind his reason for wanting to find the island that was recently photographed by a NASA spy satellite: he’s an oil man who believes there’s petroleum beneath that island, and he wants to tap into it. A paleontologist stowaway suspects the island could be home to a humanoid beast that has been encountered a few times over the centuries, but the journey is really all about oil.
Here we have a filmmaker named Carl Denham leading the search for the uncharted island again, having acquired a map to “a primitive world” that he wants to use as a filming location, but this Denham only has half of the information. He knows nothing of a beast called Kong, and when a couple of the ship’s crew members try to warn him there are rumors of a monster living on an island in the area they’re heading into, Denham shrugs it off. “Monsters belong in B movies.” He’s going for the scenery, not the legendary beast, which isn’t quite as compelling. This Denham’s quest also gets a strike against it for taking more than three times longer to reach the island than the expeditions in ’33 and ’76 took. Still, at least he’s not planning to drill for oil when he gets there.
The island these people are striving to reach is Skull Island, a fascinating place that is home not only to Kong and the natives who worship him as a god, offering sacrifices to him, but also to all sorts of creatures left over from prehistoric times. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. This version of Skull Island is a rather dull and desolate place. We have Kong and the natives, but not so much in the way of other creatures. The ’33 film had monsters and dinosaurs all over the place, this one just has a giant snake.
I think Peter Jackson’s approach to this remake was “Did you like this in the ’33 movie? Here’s even more of it!” This Skull Island really is its own world, brimming with the descendants of prehistoric species. Dinosaurs have been thriving on this island, which puts JURASSIC PARK to shame. There are so many dinosaurs and other creatures around, it makes me start to question why the natives would worship Kong over any of the others. Yes, the natives are back as well, and Jackson makes them even creepier than the natives you’d see in an Italian cannibal movie.
The stop-motion animation used to bring Kong to life in the original film was so impressive, you really shouldn’t attempt a remake unless your Kong can be impressive in its own way. This Kong does not look impressive. It’s a man in an ape costume. They could have done that in 1933, instead they chose to do something better. Putting the effects aside, this Kong is both a frightening and sympathetic figure. A performance does come through the eyes of that ape suit – sometimes Kong seems intense and homicidal, at others he’s just an animal, bonding with some humans while being wronged by others. We see him murder people, but feel bad when people attack him. The characterization works, the execution just brings it down a bit.
This one did utilize the most impressive special effects of its day to bring Kong to life; he was created with CGI, aided by a motion capture performance from Andy Serkis. The cracks are showing in this film’s CGI at this point, but Kong does still come off as a living, breathing creature. Despite the legend being of a creature that’s neither man nor beast, Jackson’s Kong is very clearly just a 25 foot tall gorilla, minus the stop-motion animation or “man in suit” element to give it an otherworldly edge. Because he’s recognizable as an animal from our reality, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him and connect with him. I love animals. But it also means that he’s not as awe-inspiring as other Kongs or the other creatures on Skull Island.
Aspiring actress Dwan (Jessica Lange) is very much a character of 1976, rambling on about astrology and signs of insecurity. When in Kong’s clutches, she even guesses that he’s an Aries. Kong apparently likes a strong woman, because it’s when Dwan calls him a chauvinist pig ape that he begins to fall for her. Realizing that the big guy has tender feelings for her, Dwan forms a bond with him. When Kong is captured, she feels sorry for him, and it’s her presence that can calm him when he’s raging. This film deepens the idea of a “beauty and the beast” romance that was suggested in the original but was very one-sided there.
The ’33 Ann Darrow never felt anything but terror when in the presence of Kong, but Naomi Watts’ Ann follows the example of ’76’s Dwan and develops a sympathetic, caring view of the gorilla. The stage actress wins Kong over by performing vaudeville for him, then appreciates the protection he provides from the other things on Skull Island. She tries to cheer him up when he’s moody, she cuts ties with anyone involved with exploiting him, and when he’s rampaging through New York she seeks him out to calm him down. The depth of the Kong / Ann interactions is really the best thing this version of the story had to offer.
This is something of an anomaly – an event picture remake that actually has less action than its predecessor. The adventures on Skull Island were whittled down to the bare minimum, giving us nothing but the fight with the snake, some men being knocked off a cliff by Kong, and a chase scene when Dwan is taken from Kong. Even when it reaches Kong’s climactic rampage in New York, it still feels like they were cutting corners. Although the scene in which Kong destroys an elevated train is cool. The film takes on a very dark and disturbing tone when Kong is attacked by helicopters and flamethrower-toting soldiers. These things take him down quickly.
This is another anomaly, a rare instance in which I will complain that a film had too much action. Just like every other element of the movie, Jackson stuffs a bit too much monster mash into his overly long film. There’s so much going on with the dinosaurs and other creatures on Skull Island that watching the overblown scenarios play out gets to be exhausting. And then there’s still a lot of movie left to sit through after the characters capture Kong and leave the island. Kong causes a bigger mess in New York than he did in ’33 and ’76; there’s more chasing, more destruction, more gunfire. It’s too much, but when the other choice is too little, I have to side with too much.
This is the sort of Face-Off where I have to give the win to a movie that I find to be a less satisfying viewing experience than the loser. Although KING KONG 1976 feels low-rent and lazy compared to the original film, it’s easier to sit through than Peter Jackson’s bloated, overindulgent 187 minute (200 minute if you watch the extended version) take on the concept. KING KONG 2005 is more polished, but Jackson should have been a lot more ruthless in the editing room. At least ’76 wraps things up an hour quicker.

Anyway, there’s too much to it, but ’05 gives you more smash-bang for your buck, so it wins this Face-Off.

What do you think of these two versions of KING KONG? Are you looking forward to KONG: SKULL ISLAND? Share your thoughts on the Kong franchise in the comments section below, and if you have suggestions for future Face-Off pairings you can send those to me at [email protected].

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.