KING KONG: 1933 vs. 1976 vs. 2005
Now, of all the remakes I've covered, this is up to now the only one to have more than one version of the same story. The curious thing is that the earlier the version , the shorter the film. The original 1933 King Kong comes in at a brisk 104 minutes (or one minute shy of an hour and three-quarters of). The 1976 remake tops it by thirty minutes, pushing King Kong to over two hours and fourteen minutes. Peter Jackson's labor of love for his remake clocks in at a whopping THREE HOURS and seven minutes. Again...OVER THREE HOURS!
I find it incredible that the same story, told three times over, can grow larger and larger. Still, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, given that the 1933 version is an established classic, the 1976 version is derided for being bad (though I found good things within it), and the 2005 version is generally liked but one that I cannot get behind.
Now, after a very lengthy delay, it is time to look back and see which ones stack up best.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
It's an upset in a category that you'd think the most technologically advanced film would have, but I find that despite its Oscar win, the 2005 version now looks horribly dated and fake. You can tell it's CGI. The 1933 version, on the other hand, had to resort to stop-motion animation to make the effects real. Granted, by today's standards they are pretty rudimentary, but if you see the 1933 version you can still feel the emotional impact of Kong's demise. To me, the 1933 version of Kong looked real, and given we are 83 years removed from the film, its special effects still hold up.
The 2005 version effects, on the other hand, look like they were created, and while at the time they were impressive, I now don't believe them. However, they are still miles ahead of the 1976 version, which are laughable. It's clearly a man in an ape suit, and how it won a Special Visual Effects Oscar is downright bizarre.
This is a bit of a difficulty for me. Jessica Lange, who went on to become a respected Academy Award and Emmy-winning actress, made her debut in the 1976 King Kong, and it is one of the most disastrous debuts in film history. The movie in many ways was bad (though I have a special place in my heart for it), and Lange in particular was held out for particular derision for her performance as Dwan, the femme fatale to our big monkey. Therefore, why am I going for Lange?
Two reasons. One: I find her the most attractive of our three lovelies (so sue me). Two: I think that people were far too harsh when it came to Lange. She was making her debut and had very limited to no acting experience, so insisting she knock one out of the park on her first film is unfair. Further, the part was so poorly written that I don't think even someone like Meryl Streep could have done much with it. The fact that Lange managed to comeback and prove her worth after the horrendous reception to her first starring role is a credit to her as a person and actress.
Fay Wray is certainly iconic, so perhaps in terms of acting she is a better choice. She and Lange are at least better than Watts, an actress I genuinely love but who was so ill-used in 2005. Her little Chaplinesque routine with Kong made me cringe.
I pretty much dismiss Armstrong merely because he hasn't had an impact the same way Wray did. That narrows it down to between Grodin's camp oil executive Fred Wilson and Jack Black's deranged movie director Carl Denham (the original version). Black is not among my favorite performers, and I found his Denham more repulsive than anything. I think they were trying to make him so super-focused on his 'vision' that he didn't really seem to mind that many were dying for it.
Grodin, on the other hand, made Wilson almost hopelessly comic. Again and again I find the term 'camp' comes to mind. I found him hilarious as the somewhat crazed oil executive, and I was genuinely happy when he gets stomped on. Maybe it's because Grodin was so over-the-top that I gravitate to him. Still, on this one, the camp wins.
"Generic" is what comes to mind when I think of Cabot. "Crazed" is what comes to mind when I think of Bridges. "Committed" is what comes to mind when I think of Brody. Adrien Brody is not your typical leading man (though I know women who find him terribly attractive). Perhaps because Brody isn't traditionally good looking, he could make his intellectual playwright Jack Driscoll more believable when he has to become heroic to rescue the damsel in distress. I don't think he did it particularly well (at times looking bored with everything to where I think he thought he was far above the material), but bless him for trying.
Bridges, to my mind, was just a bit bonkers to be the romantic lead, and truth be told I cannot recall much if anything from Cabot. Is this a decision by default, or perhaps a desperate pass to find ANYTHING good in the only King Kong film I truly dislike and wouldn't watch again?
The most interesting thing about the 1976 version, the thing that surprised me when I rewatched it, was that the film's score was by John Barry, one of the best composers of his era. Listening to his score, I was surprised at how good it was for such a schlocky production. It's as if he were the only one taking any of this seriously. If it weren't tied into such a disaster as King Kong (though it's a popular disaster and one of the few films I'd argue is better than its reputation), I think Barry's score would have merited at least an Oscar nomination (if not win).
I think Max Steiner's score is good (as is usually the case), but as for James Newton Howard, I find him perhaps one of the worst composers working today (with one or two exceptions, I find his music horrendous).
It's clear that the 1933 original is still among the greatest films ever made. Both remakes have failed to equal it, let alone top it.
Part of the problem with the 2005 version is that director Peter Jackson was simply too much in love with the whole project. As a result, he couldn't leave well enough alone, making everything so big and monumental and important he forgot to give his King Kong a heart. So many 'serious' moments were there, so many plot points introduced that were never resolved (were we really suppose to care about Billy Elliot's history?), and that damn ice-skating bit with Kong...ugh. Furthermore, he really couldn't cut out a lot of unnecessary aspects (the Depression struggles of Ann, her song-and-dance with Kong, the endless Skull Island visit...not to mention the Cannibal Holocaust-like nature of the natives), aspects that dragged the film into being a bit of a bore.
I hold that the 1976 version, while nowhere in the 1933's league, has its own offbeat charm (very offbeat). The effects were laughable, some of the acting even more so, and its efforts to be topical with the oil subplot make it a product of its time. Still, I was entertained by it, something I didn't feel about the 2005 version both in 2005 and 2015 (when I rewatched it for the retrospective).
Ten years after its release King Kong is a dated snoozefest.
Forty years after its release King Kong is a flawed but enjoyable film.
Eighty-three years after its release King Kong still thrills, shocks, entertains, and even moves.
There is no doubt that in this urban jungle, the 1933 King Kong still is the best, and will remain so.