Saturday, September 16, 2006

Peter Jackson's King Kong

I don't remember what we were in the theater to see - possibly Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire - when I we first saw the trailer for Peter Jackson's King Kong, but I do remember my reaction. My wife and I both looked at each other and mouthed, "Wow!" It looked spectacular.

Well, I've now seen it, and it is. Jackson's a master at putting impressive visuals together, as he demonstrated in The Lord Of The Rings. King Kong was clearly a labor of love for Jackson, and it shows in every frame.

But there's a serious problem. The movie is too long. Way, way too long. The departure from New York takes too long. It takes too long to get to the island. The scene with the ship in trouble is too long. The scene when they meet the natives is too long. The trek across the island is too long. The fight with the giant insects is too long. The fight between Kong and the dinosaurs is too long. The capture scene is too long. Kong wanders the streets of New York for too long. The scene on the Empire State building is too long.

Don't misunderstand - it's all spectacular. It's a visual treat (with a couple of minor exceptions - the men running through the dinosaur stampede didn't work. The effects were overdone, and looked fake. Oh, and it went on too long) but there's just too much of it. There's not nearly enough story for a 3-hour movie. There are far too many scenes that don't do anything to move the narrative forward. At all. From how many evils, exactly, does Kong need to rescue Ann for us to understand that he's caring for her? How many dinosaurs does he need to kill to demonstrate that they can show us that? How many sailors need to die at the hands of how many monsters to establish that the island is full of dangerous creatures?

In 1933, Merian Cooper produced the original King Kong move. It runs about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Jackson's version, which follows the original very closely from a plot point-of-view, takes nearly 3 hours. The extra 1:15, while looking great, does nothing to enhance the movie. And even at that length, he doesn't close all of the plots that he opens. You've got the story of Jimmy, for example, which is fraught with ominous portents and goes nowhere. He went to all the trouble of getting the police out to the dock for Denham, of having the news wired out to the ship that Denham was wanted, but didn't bother with even a line or two about the return.

It took Cooper 20 minutes to get from Kong's appearance on Broadway to the end of the film, and it doesn't feel rushed. Jackson took 40 minutes. In the 1933 version, it's about 24 minutes from the opening titles to the landing on Skull Island. Jackson managed to cram that into 54 minutes, with very little additional benefit. Again, the 1933 version wasn't rushed - the 2005 version is overblown.

From start to finish, it takes longer to get from point A to point B than the story really warrants. Yes, we know that Kong loves Ann. Does he really need to take her ice skating? Wouldn't seeing him chase the car around 5 corners have been sufficient? Did he need to go around 7 more? Is a fight with 7 Tyrannosaurus really more impressive than a fight with 2?

That isn't to say that all of the additional time is wasted. I fell in love with the film from the start, as the first scene is fabulous. He opened by setting the scene, early-depression era New York. With "Sitting On Top Of The World" playing, he intercuts between the vaudeville stage, prohibition raids, steel-workers assembling the NY skyline and shanty-towns. It's extremely well-done, enormously effective.

But then everything just slows down. The casting is all fine, the performances are all good, the visuals are virtually uniformly spectacular. It's just that every step the film takes after the opening is a ponderous step. Jackson's so in love with the images that he's putting on screen, that he can't actually use them to service a story. He's using the story just as an excuse for putting the images on screen.

When Thomas Wolfe brought his manuscript entitled "O, Lost" to Charles Scribner's in 1928 it was brilliant. It was also too long, rambling and unfocused. Maxwell Perkins worked with Wolfe, fought with Wolfe, and, in the editing process, cut hundreds of pages from what would go on to be the classic novel, "Look Homeward, Angel." Peter Jackson's King Kong would have been immeasurably improved by an editor fighting with Jackson to cut an hour out of it...

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