It Was Beauty Killed the Beast

King Kong (2005) is the most affectionate remake I’ve ever seen. After the immense success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, everyone wondered what Oscar winning director Peter Jackson would do next. I don’t think anyone was expecting the third remake of a 1933 classic. As I said in my King Kong (1976) review, the rights were split between two seperate studios. Universal first approached Jackson with a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake in the 90’s, but changed their strategy when they learned King Kong (1933) was his favorite movie of all time. Even as a child Jackson had nothing but sympathy for the big ape. Skull Island is actually referenced in his movie Braindead.

When Godzilla (1998) failed and other ape remakes started to come out, production was halted. Until The Return of the King made Jackson the most bankable director in Hollywood. King Kong (2005) is a rare passionate remake made with nothing but love and respect for the original. All Jackson did was give it the same level of dedication he did with The Lord of the Rings. Detail in every frame, breathtaking special effects, three-dimensional characters, and a lengthy 3 hour & 21 minute runtime. King Kong (2005) was a major obsession for my brother and I growing up. After our mom showed us the original, the three us saw the remake in theaters and fell in love with it. I had a Kong doll, a Skull Island field guide, and my brother was especially obsessed with completing the official tie-in video game…

7. King Kong 2005

King Kong holds Ann Darrow

King Kong (2005) is part homage, part epic. Only Peter Jackson could take an hour and a half film and make it three hours. Even though there are several new additions that could’ve been trimmed down or removed, I can safely say I was never bored. The perfect three-act structure is maintained with each act being roughly an hour long. That means more than an hour until we finally get a glimpse of Kong. In the meantime, an almost excessive amount of time is spent in New York and on a very long boat ride. Unlike the 1976 remake, King Kong (2005) is a period piece set in 1933 like the original. Basic ideas are either elaborated upon or given added depth. Ann Darrow is now a struggling vaudeville actress who falls on hard times during the Great Depression. Naomi Watts looks the part of the classic beautiful blonde woman, but Ann is more than just a pretty face. Her motivation for accepting a movie role is much more understandable.

Carl Denham has the same passionate motivation to complete his picture on Skull Island, but his recklessness gets him blacklisted and nearly arrested. Casting singer/comedian Jack Black as the iconic 1930’s director is one of the most bizzare casting choices of all time. Most of the time I can accept his Orson Welles-esque performance, but other times it feels like he could go full School of Rock any minute. Denham hires Ann with the promise that she’ll meet her favorite playwright. Rather than a strapping first mate action hero, Jack Driscoll is now an average screenwriter forced to stay on the Venture. Adrien Brody is more than capable of playing the charming love interest and the unlikely hero. The Venture is full of mystery and a crew with far more characterization.

Captain Englehorn is now a nonsense hands on German ship captain played by Thomas Kretschmann. Colin Hanks plays Carl’s undervalued personal assistant Preston. Jamie Bell is given an entire subplot as a troublemaking teenager named Jimmy who wants to prove himself. Evan Parke plays his African American mentor Hayes who has World War I training. Andy Serkis does double duty by physically playing the crusty ship’s cook Lumpy. Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore originally returned before he was replaced by James Newton Howard. The role of strapping action hero is literally filled by Kyle Chandler as famous actor Bruce Baxter. Some of the more sexist dialogue from the original is cleverly worked into the remake as a scene in Denham’s picture. Jack has nothing but respect for Ann as he writes her a play and they fall in love. When they finally reach Skull Island, Englehorn is adamant about turning back.

Denham leads a small crew through what appears to be the ruins of a lost civilization. The always necessary island natives are a no win situation no matter the interpretation. These natives are much more tribal and savage. Their skin is dark brown, but each native is actually portrayed by a variety of non-white ethnicities. They kill crew members before returning to capture Ann. Her sacrifice is grander with a complex bridge extending from their great wall. Kong is at first veiled in shadow, but his first full appearance doesn’t disappoint. Kong is often labeled a monster due to his burly upright appearance. Jackson instead made the creative decision to focus on a Kong that was essentially a massive 25 foot tall silverback gorilla. This Kong is still a little monstrous with black fur, sharp teeth, and many battle scars. My very in-depth Skull Island field guide explains Kong’s origin as a 100 year old Megaprimatus who is the last of his kind.

This is by far the most sympathetic King Kong ever put to film. His relationship with Ann is more than mere infatuation. Ann screams at first, but they come to form a deep mutual understanding. She even surprisingly makes him laugh by performing her vaudeville routine. Kong’s lifelike ape mannerisms are thanks to the always brilliant stop-motion work of Andy Serkis. After Gollum, Serkis was sure to bring just as much dedication to even the most subtle gorilla movements. The CGI is absolutely stunning on Kong, Skull Island, and a 1930’s New York. It’s part of the reason King Kong (2005) was the most expensive movie made at the time. Just as much detail is given to the dinosaurs that inhabit Skull Island. Each with a fictional name like Vastatosaurus rex that separates it a bit from something like Jurassic Park.

The only iffy effect is a herd of stampeding Brontosaurus baxteri that Denham and his crew are somehow able to survive. They’re also chased by raptor-like Venatosaurus saevidicus. Other terrifying creatures like the Piranhadon didn’t make the final cut. What did make the final cut was a scene that was originally intended for the 1933 original. After Kong overturns a log with the crew, they fall into a disturbing pit full of giant insects. The Carnictis worm thing that eats Lumpy is particularly icky. King Kong (2005) doesn’t recreate everything, but the fight between Kong and a T-Rex was an absolute must. The primal fight is increased big time with not one, not two, but three V. Rexes against Kong. It’s a truly exciting match that sees Kong juggle Ann from his hands to his feet in a desperate attempt to fend of the beasts. Each are killed one by one until Kong breaks the last ones jaw just like the original. Concluding with a satisfying chest pound.

Ann willingly stays with Kong and even teaches him the sign for beautiful. She’s still rescued by Jack when Kong is distracted by attacking rat-bats called Terapusmordax. Although I still wouldn’t label him a villain, Denham does begin to make rash decisions when his camera is destroyed. He lures Kong to the wall where the natives are nowhere to be seen. Not that Kong doesn’t kill a few of the attacking crewmembers. When stunned by chloroform, Denham makes his classic declaration to put “Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!” on broadway. The New York show has all the familiar beats of Denham making a statement, Kong chained up on stage, and everyone in town coming to see it. Since Ann feels for Kong, she doesn’t take part in the show. A stage number pays homage to the dancing natives, but Kong breaking loose is now caused by another actress playing Ann. Kong rampages through the city with most of his anger focused on Jack. Kong does grab blonde women that look like Ann, but he drops them from a safer distance.

Unlike any other interpretation, Ann walks directly to Kong and they enjoy a moment together before the military arrives. Kong makes his way to an epic climax atop the Empire State Building. The sequence honors the original by having Peter Jackson cameo as an airplane pilot. The fight is both thrilling and emotional. Much like the V. Rex battle, Kong manages to take out three airplanes instead of one. Ann desperately pleading for them to stop and Kong falling to his death makes me cry everytime. In fact, Jackson loves Kong so much that he created an alternate ending where he survives just for the video game. Unfortunately, Kong meets his iconic fate and Denham delivers his final line that “It wasn’t the airplanes, It was Beauty killed the Beast.” Something Fay Wray nearly said before passing away. Although not the same kind of Academy Awards favorite as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong (2005) nevertheless won 3 Oscars. Best Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and of course Visual Effects. King Kong (2005) is a larger than life companion piece that appreciates cinematic history.

8. King Kong 2005

King Kong vs. the V. Rex

Remake of: King Kong (1933)

Gorilla Warfare

King Kong Lives gave the fallen ape the second chance he never needed. King Kong has been resurrected before, but it’s kind of hard to survive a fall from two of the tallest buildings in New York. Former producer Dino De Laurentiis couldn’t settle on a single method that made sense. Director John Guillermin returned 10 years later in 1986, but King Kong Lives was hated by audiences, bombed at the box office, and holds a rare 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Proving that even an icon as big as Kong needs a good story to back him up.

King Kong Lives is practically a lost film that I couldn’t find anywhere. My only option was to buy a cheap copy on eBay. Despite a runtime closer to the 1933 original, King Kong Lives is almost torture to sit through. Most of the 1976 climax is shown before the opening credits. Followed by the nonsensical revelation that Kong has somehow been in a coma for 10 years. Post-Terminator Linda Hamilton is a more reserved beautiful woman who isn’t the object of Kong’s affection. Not that she doesn’t get topless despite the PG-13 rating. She plays Dr. Amy Franklin, a surgeon who brings back Kong with a giant artificial heart.

More ridiculous is lesser known actor Brian Kerwin as adventurer Hank Mitchell discovering a Lady Kong. Basically King Kong with boobs. The sight of Kong interacting with a lady his own size is almost so bad it’s good. When seperated, Kong is forced to face an aggressive military and a band of hillbillies in more rural areas. Sometimes the ape suits look fine, but most of the time they look cheaper. The sequel ends exactly the way I assumed it would, with the birth of a new Son of Kong. King Kong Lives kept the franchise on life support.

6. King Kong Lives

King Kong escapes

Preceded by: King Kong (1976)

Monkey Suit

King Kong (1976) isn’t the remake the great ape deserved. Since monsters as iconic as King Kong never truly die, a reimagining of the classic 1933 film wasn’t entirely out of the question. Kong remained relevant throughout the 60’s thanks to being licensed in Japan. Toho made King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes. Meanwhile, the rights to Kong in America were split between two seperate studios. The idea for a remake was pitched to both Paramount and Universal. Since RKO Pictures barely existed anymore, the rights were basically public domain.

There was apparently a big legal battle that allowed Paramount to make their version before Universal (29 years later in 2005). While I do have my mom to thank for introducing my brother and I to the original, I can’t say the same for the 1976 remake. I didn’t watch it because she warned me it wasn’t very good. King Kong (1976) is different, but bad is a strong word. 1933’s King Kong is an old fashioned larger than life adventure, while 1976’s King Kong is a contemporary light hearted romp. King Kong (1976) takes the basic structure we’re familiar with and changes it enough to be mostly memorable…

4. King Kong 1976

King Kong looks at Dwan

King Kong (1976) was developed by major Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin. Directing a movie that involved an enormous skyscraper wasn’t exactly new for him after The Towering Inferno. Their goal was always to make something different, but familiar to the original. It’s so different that you never know what iconic scenes will be kept, altered, or removed entirely. The biggest change was setting events in present day 1970’s. Rather than follow a film crew on a mysterious voyage to Skull Island, King Kong (1976) takes advantage of the current energy crisis. A decision that doesn’t always make as much sense as simply wanting to capture exotic wildlife. Carl Denham is replaced by Charles Grodin as equally reckless Petrox Oil executive Fred Wilson. He mounts an expedition to Skull Island with the belief that it’s rich with oil. Jack Driscoll is replaced by a very young Jeff Bridges as hippie primate paleontologist Jack Prescott. He stows away on the boat just to warn them against disturbing the giant creature that lives there. They ignore his pleas, but keep him aboard anyway as a photographer.

Since a Beast is only as good as his Beauty, a beautiful blonde woman literally drifts onto their ship. Ann Darrow is replaced by Jessica Lange in her very first film role. Although calling her Dwan instead of Dawn is dumb regardless of explanation, she is right about being memorable. Unlike the original crew, everybody loves Dwan’s fun loving personality. Despite being PG, I can’t blame them for giving her partially obscured nude scenes. Jack falls in love with Dwan and becomes her hero similar to the original. The build up to Kong is even longer, but it doesn’t drag too much. Skull Island natives are almost exactly the same with grand rituals and a desire to trade their women for Dwan. She’s quickly kidnapped and sacrificed nearly an hour into the 2 hour & 14 minute movie. Kong is slowly revealed with a signature chest pound, but his appearance is a mixed bag. Although often depicted as brown on posters or in Toho productions, black & white has always made him appear black.

This Kong stands upright with dark brown fur worn by a stunt performer. An ape suit can’t beat the meticulous effort of stop-motion, but he is expressive and it is impressive to see him in the same frame as the humans. Kong lumbers around at an even bigger 55 feet tall. A lot more attention is given to Kong’s love of Dwan. Their romance has less subtle sexual undertones shown when Kong bathes and undresses her. Dwan isn’t exactly afraid of Kong, but she doesn’t want to stay with him either. Their relationship feels like a screwball comedy at times. Kong protects Dwan by overturning a log like the original, but the remake’s lamest decision is leaving out all of the dinosaurs. The only creature Kong has to fight is a giant snake. Kong doesn’t even terrorize the native village when he crashes through their wall.

Another change is actually seeing Kong’s boat trip to New York. Wilson makes the unusual decision to use Kong as a promotional tool to sell oil. Dwan wants to be a star, but she and Jack can’t help but feel sorry for Kong. In fact, Dwan is actually split between her two loves. She comforts Kong when he gets rowdy, but still participates in the show. Kong is instead locked in a giant cage with a crown on his head. He escapes captivity and steps on Wilson. A train is destroyed and a woman thought to be Dwan is tossed aside, but the most major deviation is Kong scaling the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. You can imagine the changes that were made to the poster after 9/11.

Kong takes Dwan to the Twin Towers where Jack thinks he’ll be netted by helicopters. Little does he know they plan to shoot him down. The change in venue only succeeds in giving Kong 2 buildings to jump from. Otherwise, Kong meets an even bloodier fate after barely defending himself at all. Dwan cries for Kong since an attempt was made to make him more sympathetic. The iconic final line is replaced by Jack unable to approach Dwan in a sea of photographers. Although critics were split, King Kong (1976) was a rare successful remake with another Special Achievement Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. King Kong (1976) left its footprint on cinema regardless of quality or personal opinion.

5. King Kong 1976

King Kong prepares to climb the Twin Towers

Remake of: King Kong (1933) & Followed by: King Kong Lives

Kong’s Kid

Son of Kong is one of the earliest sequels ever made. King Kong was such a big hit that RKO Pictures didn’t even wait a year to make it. Son of Kong was released a mere 9 months into 1933. Despite its close proximity, audiences didn’t embrace it the way they did with the original. Although the runtime is only 1 hour and 9 minutes, I never felt the need to watch Son of Kong until now. Only Ernest B. Schoedsack returns as director, but the production feels almost exactly the same with Willis H. O’Brien continuing to do stop-motion.

A lot of props were carried over from King Kong, but the primary difference is tone. Little Kong is an albino gorilla who is a lot more comedic than his father. His roars are childish and he makes silly expressions. I wouldn’t label Son of Kong a comedy since it does seriously attempt to follow the aftermath of Kong’s rampage through New York. Carl Denham is genuinely remorseful as he faces several lawsuits. Robert Armstrong becomes the new heroic lead as one of a few returning cast members.

Frank Reicher also returns as Venture Captain Englewood who takes Denham on a new voyage. They run into new beautiful woman Hilda in a performing monkey show. She stows away when they foolishly return to Skull Island in search of treasure. Since Little Kong is friendly, the untrustworthy Helstrom is the human villain. Denham finds closure by saving Little Kong’s life. So Little Kong fights off a new batch of man eating dinosaurs in return. Including a not as intimidating giant bear. Still it’s hard to believe the special effects look this good after only 9 months. Little Kong isn’t an endearing icon, but his watery fate is just as tragic. Son of Kong is the original unnecessary sequel.

3. Son of Kong

Little Kong in the jungle

Preceded by: King Kong

Eighth Wonder of the World

King Kong is the greatest giant monster movie ever made in Hollywood. Nothing feels more cinematic than a 24 foot tall gorilla scaling the Empire State Building. Decades before Godzilla, King Kong became one of the most iconic characters in film history. Since jungle movies were all the rage back then, directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack developed their own picture. Their simple, but ambitious idea was to follow a giant ape from a prehistoric island and into the modern world.

Although almost 100 years old, King Kong has aged surprisingly well. It wowed audiences with state of the art stop-motion special effects, a tragic monster, and a genuine build up. King Kong was a major hit that led to sequels, remakes, cartoons, video games, and several giant ape imitators. I have my mom to thank for introducing my brother and I to the 1933 classic. Unlike most remakes, our mom encouraged us to see the original first. No matter how many times I watch King Kong, it never fails to give me a chest pounding cinematic experience…

1. King Kong

King Kong vs. the airplanes

King Kong has a perfect three-act structure. It all begins with a 4 minute overture that I usually skip. Though Max Steiner’s score is wonderfully thrilling for the adventure ahead. The first act takes place in New York Harbor where director Carl Denham prepares a voyage on the ship Venture. Denham is a reckless director known for swell pictures filmed in exotic locations full of dangerous wildlife. Robert Armstrong manages to give Denham honest passion without him seeming like a bad person. He’s joined by a crew of rugged shipmates including first mate Jack Driscoll. Bruce Cabot fills the role of handsome action hero. Much like the movie itself, Denham knows the only way to sell his picture is with a beautiful woman at the center.

King Kong is in many ways a romance. Beauty and the Beast in its most primitive form. Ann Darrow is found on the streets by Denham and immediately cast with promises of adventure. Although her performance is at least 60% screaming, Fay Wray is truly the human face of King Kong. Her blonde hair was specifically chosen to stand out opposite her tall, dark, and handsome co-star. Despite initially objecting to dames aboard the Venture, Jack can’t help but fall in love with Ann. It may seem like a lot of time is spent on the boat, but it’s all worth it when they reach the ominous Skull Island. The second act sees the crew reach their exotic destination where Denham plans his shoot.

They’re first greeted by natives performing a mysterious ritual. Having black natives may suggest racial implications, but I don’t believe that was the intention. They’re a simple people that keep Kong out with a giant wall and sacrifice their women to him. When bargaining for Ann doesn’t work, the natives kidnap her instead. A screaming Ann tied to two pillars is one of several iconic moments that finally gives us Kong in glorious black & white. Although Kong’s design is modeled after a gorilla, he is given more upright positions. Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-motion animation is the true star of the show. O’Brien trained Ray Harryhausen himself, so you know he knows what he’s doing. Kong is fully expressive when he sees Ann. Drawn by her beauty, the beast takes her deep into Skull Island where the crew encounter a variety of prehistoric creatures.

There’s a definite divide when special effects start to take over. Schoedsack directed most scenes with dialogue and Cooper directed the miniature dinosaurs. Since King Kong is pre-Code, many violent or suggestive scenes were cut for many years. Denham, Jack, and the crew encounter a Stegosaurus and a particularly dangerous Brontosaurus in the water. Kong famously protects Ann in a fight against a Tyrannosaurus. Their fight only ends when Kong breaks the jaw of the T-Rex and performs his signature chest pound. Kong seemingly kills most of the crew when he sends them falling off a log. I say seemingly because a lost sequence would’ve seen them devoured by large insects. Denham survives along with Jack who tries to rescue Ann. After fighting off an Elasmosaurus snake creature in his lair, Kong undresses Ann. An innocent act that I mostly see as curiosity. Jack saves Ann when Kong is distracted by a Pterodactyl. It’s clear that Ann wants nothing to do with Kong, but he pursues her anyway. Kong breaks through the native wall and terrorizes their village. Denham gets particularly reckless when he gas bombs Kong and somehow takes him back to New York City with the moniker “Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!

The third act is in New York where patrons pay to see Kong tied up in chains. Another iconic moment that ends badly when flash photography causes him to break loose. Despite often being labeled a villain, Kong is a misunderstood creature who should never have been forced to leave his home. Though it is hard to excuse Kong eating people, stepping on villagers, attacking a train, and throwing an innocent woman out a building in an attempt to find Ann. When Kong does find Ann, he creates one of the greatest moments in movie history by climbing the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to gun down Kong at the very top of the building. Though he manages to destroy one, Kong protects Ann one last time before falling to his death. Ending with Denham’s famous final words that “It wasn’t the airplanes, It was Beauty killed the Beast.” Even though King Kong screams Hollywood, it wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award. The only Oscar it got was a Special Achievement Award. Regardless of accolades, King Kong has left an undeniable impact on the movie industry.

2. King Kong

King Kong meets Ann Darrow

Followed by: Son of Kong