Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a little boy in New Zealand who saw King Kong. And it made him want to be a filmmaker when he grew up. As he began to study the craft, he began to study King Kong as well, and became one of the biggest geeks in the world for Kong. The little boy, of course, is Peter Jackson.
Jackson was originally set to remake King Kong way back in the mid-1990s. After the success of his first American film, The Frighteners, he was all set up to make it at Universal. It was slated for the summer of 1998. But then, Universal (who owns King Kong) took a look at the schedule for 1998 and saw that Sony was releasing their American remake of Godzilla and Disney was getting ready with their remake of Mighty Joe Young. Fearing the market would be over-saturated with giant monster movies, Universal pulled the plug on their King Kong remake. Now out of a job, Jackson decided to go off and make The Lord of the Rings instead. When The Return of the King came out in 2003, and Jackson became Hollywood's new golden boy, Universal sent a truckful of money over to Peter Jackson's house and said, "So...still wanna do that King Kong remake?" Jackson got a salary of $20 million to direct King Kong...at the time, it was a record for a director.
I kinda liked Jackson's King Kong remake. I also love the Jurassic Park movies, and it does have a spirit and a style very similar to Jurassic Park. Apparently, when Jackson was prepping to do it in 1998, he was going to give it a lighter tone...more in spirit with Indiana Jones, he's said in a few interviews. But, when time passed, he decided to make it more serious and more in keeping with the original.
Since I kinda like the remake, I've always been kinda curious about the extended edition. Like Lord of the Rings, Jackson went back and created an extended edition for DVD and Blu-Ray. I've seen the extended edition in a few discount bins, but never picked it up. And then, a few weeks ago, when I finally buckled down and bought the Blu-Ray of the original King Kong, I spotted the Blu-Ray of Jackson's version next to it. Now, as I've blogged before, I'm not in a rush to upgrade my DVDs to Blu-Ray because I don't have a hi-def TV to fully enjoy them. But, I read the fine print on the Peter Jackson version, and the fine print said the Blu-Ray "contains both the theatrical and extended edition." Well, here it is, ready for an upgrade to Blu-Ray, containing the extended edition, and at a discount bin price. How could I say no?
I pretty much recapped the plot in the last installment, and Jackson stays pretty faithful, so no need to repeat myself. Instead, I'll pose the question that many a critic posed when the film first came out. "So, the original is 1 hour and 45 minutes. The remake is 3 hours and 5 minutes. [The extended edition is 3 hours and 20 minutes] What did you add?" And Jackson's response? "Character development." I think I remarked in the original that the characters did seem a little one note: our stoic hero and our damsel in distress. Needless to say, Jackson set out to change that.
Let's start with our hero, the character of Jack Driscoll. In the original, he's the ship's first officer. In Jackson's remake, he's a famous playwright, and an old friend of Carl Denham's, who's been suckered into writing the script for Denham's new film. I remember at the time, a lot of critics accused Jackson of turning the character of Jack into his own personal Mary Sue, and it's easy to see why. Jack comes across as the moody, artistic type who becomes the reluctant hero and all the ladies just can't help but swoon over him. And rather than dashing good looks, we get the unconventionally good looking Adrien Brody.
And speaking of the ladies...Ann Darrow. We do get a little more backstory for her. We see that she's a hard working vaudeville actress, and she quickly turns down on her luck when the Great Depression hits and her theatre closes down, leaving her out of a job. So of course, when the famous film producer Carl Denham approaches her and offers her a role in his next film, she can't help but say yes. Darrow is played by Naomi Watts.
And Carl Denham, played by Jack Black. Again, at the time, I remember folks being surprised with the casting of Jack Black, but he does get to flex his acting chops, here. Denham is also a desperate man. His last few films have flopped. The studio wants to shut him down. So of course he jumps on the ship and heads off to Skull Island with the cops hot on his tail trying to stop him. On the island, Denham becomes a man obsessed with completing his film. Even as members of his film crew fall victim to the monsters on the island, he presses on, camera in hand, filming the whole ordeal. And when his camera is destroyed, he's not above using his friends as bait to set a trap for Kong, just so he won't go home empty-handed. In this extended edition, there's even a brief moment where his obsession crosses the line into madness. Jack Black actually gives a very good performance.
But, problems arise with the new characters that Jackson introduces. Such as the ship's first officer Hays and the young stowaway Jimmy. They have a father/son relationship. We're given a shadowy past for Jimmy in which he doesn't say much about where he comes from. Jimmy's reading Heart of Darkness, thinking its a simple adventure story. Jimmy is quick to pick up a gun and join the fight, but Hays is always quick to reprimand Jimmy and try to teach him a better life. You all think their relationship and their characters are building to something but...they never do. There is a bit of a resolution in this extended edition where, after Hays dies, Jimmy puts on Hays' trademark black cap, as though solemnly agreeing to honour his surrogate father's wishes. But still, it's all build-up, with no payoff.
And speaking of characters...let's talk about Kong. At least, this time out, Ann has more to do than scream as Kong carries her around. Ann and Kong actually do form some kind of relationship. Beauty is able to tame this great beast, and they form a friendship. It's kind of nice, and really works to make Kong a more sympathetic character. However, it does lead to some cheezy moments, like the infamous "ice skating" scene.
That's kind of the problem with the Jackson version. As much as getting to know our characters is a good thing, it really drags down the plot and starts making the movie move kind of slow.
As for the extended edition, most of the additions are more monsters! As soon as our heroes start chasing Kong through the jungle, they're attacked by a triceratops. And the one that people talked about the most was the swamp scene, where our heroes make a makeshift raft to cross a swamp and are attacked by sea serpents.
And that's why I like this movie. The monsters. The dinosaurs. The fight between Kong and the three T-Rexes...I'm sorry, I mean V-Rexes, is just a great action sequence. And seeing the big monkey go rampaging through New York with modern special effects is a lot of fun.
So, yeah. The Peter Jackson Kong. There's some great action sequences, if the character development doesn't put you to sleep. Huh. I've made that complaint about Godzilla movies, too. When the giant monsters aren't on the screen, things grind to a halt.
I guess that's the key to making a great giant monster movie. Figuring out what to have the humans do.