It's Time to Rethink Peter Jackson's 'King Kong'

History has been too unkind to the director's 2005 film, which should be remembered not as lumbering and mindless, but as majestic and mesmerizing.
History has been too unkind to the director's 2005 film, which should be remembered not as lumbering and mindless, but as majestic and mesmerizing.

“It was beauty killed the beast.” King Kong’s iconic closing line, used both in the 1933 and 2005 versions, was cheekily rewritten by many film critics to comment on Peter Jackson’s remake: “it was bloat killed the beast” and “it was overindulgence killed the beast.”

In the years since its release, those criticisms have grown all the louder as they’ve bounced around the internet echo chamber, ultimately condemning the 2005 rendering as a misinterpretation, if not a complete destruction, of the original film.

Oddly enough, film buffs forget that Jackson's film was actually well-reviewed at the time, holding an 84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, as the positive reviews for the quicker-paced Kong: Skull Island have hit (some of which are taking swipes at Jackson's film), it's high time to give the filmmaker's journey to Skull Island another look.

The pivotal scene in the film showcases Anne Darrow (played beautifully by Naomi Watts) performing her vaudevillian routine for the mighty ape. Even more than using the scene to define those characters’ relationship, Jackson is masterfully informing us — the audience — how we should view his film: not as lumbering and mindless, but as majestic and mesmerizing. 

Every frame of this film is designed to lure the viewer anew into an age-old narrative and capture a fresh sense of a classic story's excitement, which in the 21st century is no small task. Indeed, more than 80 years removed from the 1933 original, the modern moviegoer has become very much like the guests in 2015’s Jurassic World: unimpressed with anything that they’ve seen before and constantly demanding something trendy and new.

Fortunately, Jackson doesn't overcome this hurdle with irreverent Transformers jokes or insecure Independence Day: Resurgence self-referentials. He instead shows us a nearly century-old story through a child’s eyes. With youthful glee, he points out a place on the map thought to be nothing more than a coffee stain, a mere smudge that he's discovered to be bursting with danger, spectacle and wonder. To him, every rock and every creature is a wondrous reality, and he sucks us in to that point of view by having it inform every creative decision on screen.

First off, it drives the aesthetics. Not until 2016's The Jungle Book did we again see a jungle so comprehensively created by a filmmaker. Jackson’s Skull Island is designed from the ground up, to be more dangerous and awe-inspiring than any real life locale. Its cliffs are made more jagged, its sunsets more vibrant and its wildlife more nasty. Simultaneously, those elements are sprinkled with flavors of reality. The island, for example, is given an actual latitude and longitude, as to allow for realistic tides and weather patterns, and its fictitious inhabitants construct buildings that harken to real life Micronesian architecture. And there, in that foggy place between reality and a child's fantasy, Jackson leads us.

Second, the director's childlike perspective drives the scale of this film. In our formative years, everything is bigger, louder, more grotesque and more majestic — and Jackson reminds us of that mindset by rarely missing an opportunity for ostentation. What separates the scale in King Kong from the scale in any of Michael Bay's Transformers films, however, is Jackson allows it to inform both the loud and the quiet moments. He delays the entrance of his chest thumping star for 70 minutes to increase the anticipation, and he multiplies the T-Rex in their iconic tussle with the ape to escalate the intensity. But also, he prolongs each sunset to magnify its beauty and holds on close-up after close-up to heighten the peace.

Finally, Jackson's youthful vantage point gives King Kong its heart. The dino decapitations and arachnid attacks are conceived with boyish delight, and the scenes between Anne and Kong are executed with youthful tenderness. As an adult, watching the 1933 finale, one might still experience a level of emotional detachment, that Kong presented as little more than an instinctive monster and Darrow his terrified victim. Through Jackson's film, however, viewers experience a 9-year-old's response to that creature's death. In his finale, Jackson masterfully pulls out the Andy Serkis-performed Kong the same level of emotion conveyed in the CGI creatures in the recent, excellent Planet of the Apes films. It's tragic and haunting and gives whole new meaning to, "it was beauty killed the beast." 

Of course, like any story told by a child, Jackson's King Kong also has a propensity to ramble and leave certain plot threads dangling, but we shouldn't lose sight of this forest for those trees. This film conjures up an immensely imaginative, colorful and vivacious world. It takes a fable that has been passed down from generation to generation and, as it should, grows it in its retelling. 

Appropriately, after completing his film, Jackson's abiding desire was to see another filmmaker tackle this story, and director Jordan Vogt-Robert has now fulfilled that wish with Kong: Skull Island. Even as the film doesn't boast as cohesive or patiently presented of a vision, the character of Kong is still wonderfully realized and proves that stories about him remain as relevant and rapturous as ever.