In the world of computer software, there’s a term, “feature creep,” that describes the phenomenon whereby an application becomes bloated and unwieldy because the designers have allowed the implementation of too much functionality.
While discussing Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” I suppose we need to coin a similar term for the film world: “story creep.” Where the 1933 Kong got its message across in just 104 minutes—and even the 1976 remake covered the story in 134 minutes—Jackson took a bloated three hours and eight minutes to tell his story. You don’t need me to recount the plot, so let’s take this from the top and compare the original classic to Jackson’s version, pointing out where he got it right and where he took a wrong turn.
The filmmaker opens with some nice shots of 1930s New York, showing us how the value of computer graphics in such situations. Rather than build huge sets and use tons of extras or resort to fake-looking matte paintings coupled with models, he gives us a seamless vision of an environment that no longer exists.
The story moves at a nice pace as it introduces our principal characters. I liked the decision to turn Jack Driscoll into a playwright, and tweaking Carl Denham just slightly—morphing an adventurous filmmaker modeled after Meriam C. Cooper into someone who’s always after a buck—was a good idea.
The wheels start to come off the film, though, as we move into the section of the story onboard the Venture. Members of the ship’s crew get fleshed out for no reason, since they’re all expendable and won’t make it to the final act whether or not they get off Skull Island alive. In particular, the stuff with Jimmy seems pointless, and having him read “Heart of Darkness” during the voyage comes across as heavy-handed.
Once we reach the island, there’s some good conflict between Denham and the ship captain, who’s ready to go home after realizing he’ll probably get stiffed for the trip. I also appreciated changing the natives into people living a desperate existence, much like I imagine the situation became on Easter Island in the 1700s, after natural resources had been depleted.
The movie really bogs down, though, as Jackson employs a kitchen sink approach to the quest to rescue Ann from Kong. For example, what was once a rousing fight between Kong and a T Rex has turned into a never-ending battle between Kong and three of the dinosaurs. Just when you think it’s over, it keeps going and going.
On the plus side, I liked Ann’s revised relationship with Kong. Whereas before she screamed constantly, now she shrieks a lot and then calms down when she realizes that the big lug actually seems to like her. Much of the interaction between the two is handled well, although that scene in Central Park just seems so … silly.
I should point out here that Kong is an incredible creation of technology. Between Andy Serkis’ motion-captured performance and the work of WETA Digital, he’s very much a character in the same way Gollum was in the “Lord of the Rings” films. He’s capable of a wide range of emotions, and he has a weight that tricks you into thinking a gigantic ape really was on the set.
On the downside (you knew there was one), Kong’s excellence seems to have come at the cost of some of the other effects in the film. For example, the dinosaur stampede never feels real, and a shot at the end of that sequence where Denham grabs Driscoll and says “Let’s go” looks like it was put together by Fakey F. McFakerson. Sorry if that statement results in any hurt feelings, but it’s true; there’s absolutely no depth to the shot, as if someone signed off on it because there simply weren’t the resources to massage it.
So, to sum up, we have a film created by someone whose heart was in the right place but who seems to have decided that every story he tells needs to have an epic scale. While the soaring helicopter shots of “The Lord of the Rings” also serve a purpose here, the beefing up of secondary characters for no good reason doesn’t. As a result, the film suffers for it, dragging along when it should be moving at a brisk pace.
The only other things you’ll find on disc one are a couple silly promo pieces. No commentaries. Rumor has it that Jackson is working on a three- or four-disc set in the vein of his “Lord of the Rings” Extended Editions; let’s just hope he keeps the deleted scenes separate and doesn’t decide to reinstate them. Supposedly that explains why he didn’t record a commentary for this release, which makes sense considering the fact that Jackson loves to chat about his movies.
Moving on to disc two, we have two-and-a-half hours of Jackson’s post-production diaries. His production diaries can be seen in a box set released before the movie came out. We join Jackson and his cast and crew as they go through the post-production process, week by week. Personally, I thought it was another example of overindulgence, but to each his own. Hopefully that larger DVD set will condense all the production diaries into a manageable documentary. I like this kind of stuff, but I don’t need to see this much of it.
The second disc also features “Skull Island: A Natural History,” which reveals the creation of Skull Island by pretending it really existed. It’s a fun, National Geographic-esque 17-minute piece that does a nice job of showing us the work that went into designing the island and its natives.
Finally, we have the 28-minute “Kong’s New York, 1933,” which not only delves into the digital trickery used to recreate the city as it was 70 years ago, but also offers up a history lesson to boot. If I was a history teacher, I’d probably show it to my class. That’s how much information it imparts about the era, much of which was used for the brief shots in the opening of the film.