In the last decade, Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong, which turns 10 years old this Christmas weekend, has come to represent everything that's gone wrong with the Lord of the Rings director's career since that trilogy was an audience and critical favorite. Kong relies too heavily on computerized special effects. It lacks any real sense of what to cut and what to leave in. Its 1930s period trappings create the sense of slavish devotion to the 1933 original (which is probably true, given how much Jackson loves that film). And it presumes that we're super invested in the grand tragedy of a giant gorilla who died.
But at the time of its release, reviews of the film were rapturous. Noted Lord of the Rings skeptic Roger Ebert, for instance, gave King Kong a rave, four-star review, and there was a general feeling that the film just might replicate Jackson's Oscar success with the earlier trilogy. Instead, the movie stalled out at the box office, and though it won three Oscars, none of them were in major categories.
So who was right? Those early critics, or the public that obviously found the thing strained? Would you believe both?
King Kong is a too-long yet visionary epic
How you feel about this movie boils down to how you feel about the notion of a love story between a very human woman and a very simian giant gorilla. No, the two don't have an actual romance or anything, but Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis (who gave the motion-capture performance used to create King Kong) share a very real chemistry, as you can see in the film's best scene, embedded atop this article.
Kong, now lost in a hostile New York that wants to destroy him, takes Ann out into a snowy Central Park. The two find a frozen lake, flanked by lit-up evergreen trees. (The film's subtle Christmas trappings give it a rosy glow of nostalgia, which fits well with the period setting.) And then the gorilla, for the first time in his life, slides around on the ice. It's a little respite, brutally interrupted by those who are trying to kill the big ape, but it's the kind of peaceful, beautiful moment that only a film this long would leave room for.
That's probably the paradox of Jackson's King Kong — it really doesn't need to be three hours long, but the only reason it's any good is that it's three hours long. The long, long portion of the film before we meet the titular gorilla is mostly unnecessary, but it nicely sets up all of the characters whose lives will intersect with Kong and ultimately cost him his life. Similarly, there isn't any real need for so many dinosaur attacks in the film's midsection, but for the fact that they believably grow the relationship between Ann and the ape.
This King Kong is a Shakespearean tragedy
The original 1933 film is perfect because it has all of the power of a myth, reducing a story to its very essence. It's as lean and mean as Jackson's film is bloated and turgid. And yet Jackson's film still understands, on some level, that we already know this story, and how it's going to end. He takes everything that was subtext in the 1933 version — namely Kong and Ann's love — and makes it glaring text. But because he has terrific collaborators (especially Watts), it works.
When Kong approaches the Empire State Building in the original, it's an adventure tale. When he approaches it in the 2005 film, James Newton Howard's score swells mournfully. It's like seeing Romeo and Juliet disappear into that tomb from which they will never return. That leaves King Kong in the unlikely position of being neither fish nor fowl. It's an epic retelling of a story that resists epic retelling, but because it's an epic, it allows for all of these tiny, beautifully realized moments that elevate the story from pulp adventure tale to grand tragedy.
The movie is deeply felt. You can tell Jackson and all involved care enormously about whether Kong can survive, but the dictates of the story insist that he cannot. I like the film far more than most, but will admit that it's imperfect. And yet it's a film I can't easily shake. On some level, it's about the way that our favorite stories grow in our imaginations, until they're Kong-sized, scaling the Empire State Buildings of our psyches.