Posted by bshelly, Sun Dec-18-05 01:27 PM
Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a good girl. At the start of Peter Jackson's King Kong, she's surviving the Depression in New York City by juggling and cartwheeling on a vaudeville stage. Pale and scrappy, she's only briefly defeated when the theater closes its doors, leaving her and her troupe mates on the street with nowhere to go and no money for food. She spends only a moment looking in the window of a burlesque house, then turns away, determined to maintain her goodness rather than sell herself cheap.
It's at this moment, as Ann walks wearily from the burlesque joint and is caught trying to steal an apple, that she meets film director Carl Denham (Jack Black). More precisely, he descends on her, bailing her out, then treating her to a full-on meal. Though she's famished, she's righteously skeptical at first, and well she should be. The showman Denham is a schemer and opportunist, recently threatened with shutdown by his wary producers (who think him "a preening self-promoter") and in search of a new leading lady for his current project. (He can't get "Fay," who's making a picture with "Cooper"—name-drops demonstrating Jackson's affection for his source and inspiration.)
In fact, it's the relationship between original and remake that's most interesting about this newest Kong, following John Guillermin's 1976 effort. Jackson's incarnation certainly takes up the original's examination of the excesses and vagaries of show business, most plainly embodied by the cynical, devious and strangely self-knowing Denham. His excursion is grandly delusional, as he tricks playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) into coming along to finish a script (and fall in love with Ann) and finagles stern Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) into persisting until they literally crash into Skull Island.
Still, as calamitously egotistical and jackblacky as Denham may be, he's not so different from his namesake (memorably played in 1933 by Robert Armstrong). What actually sets the new movie apart from its predecessor is its characterization of Ann, and specifically her relationship to Kong. Taking a page from Mighty Joe Young, this Kong has Ann come to sympathize and even fall a bit in love with her gigantic captor. And she's not alone: As played by Andy Serkis in another stunning motion-capture performance, the gorilla is part playful child, part ferocious he-man and part responsible adult, all devoted to the golden-haired "beauty" to whom Denham attributes his demise.
But it's not beauty that kills the beast. It's greed, meanness and lack of vision that destroy Kong's "nature" and "wildness," his emblematic manhood—indeed, his darkness. As many viewers have pointed out, the 1933 film is pervaded by disturbing racism in its depictions of the Skull Island natives, extended to the fearful specter Kong provides in relation to the perfect white woman Ann. Jackson's film—co-written with his usual collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens—makes Ann's admiration for Kong an earnest distraction from her eventual, proper coupledom with Jack (who, even with Brody's Men's Health coverboy abs, can't compete with the potent spectacle of Kong).
Ann's scrappy nature allows her not only to scamper through jungles and over mountains (with minimal screaming), but also to see (with her gigantic blue eyes, in frequent close-up) into Kong's desires, deliberations and devices. She soon realizes that he means to save her from dinosaurs (which look terrific as long as they're not in the same frame with human actors, whereupon they suddenly look quite 2D), giant bats and men, rather than rip her "limb from limb," as he has apparently done to other tribal sacrifice victims. At this point, unlike the Wray version, she aligns herself with Kong, increasingly horrified by Denham's plans to capture, chain and display him.
Still, Ann's evolving affection for Kong (her first efforts to appease him, dancing and juggling as she did onstage, are bizarrely charming) is quite different from the worship acted out by the natives who kidnap and sacrifice her to him. The adventurers' first contact with the island natives and the ritual sacrifice scene make the black primitives as "other" as they can be—captured in nightmarish stop-go pans and blurs.
In this context, the blackness of the ship's courageous and sensible first mate, Hayes (Evan Parke), seems something of a pre-emptive casting decision to allay accusations of racism, but he is undeniably charismatic; he even saves the overeager Jimmy (Jamie Bell). By the time this vision is remade in Denham's stage show, the blackface performers are overtly offensive, illustrating the film's acute awareness of the problem, if not quite a resolution. It's Ann and Kong's romance that drives the film and at least begins to address complex race dynamics. At once sensational and heartrending, it's a romance that can't possibly be.