The Daily Stream: Peter Jackson's King Kong Retains A Bit Of His Lord Of The Rings Magic

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "King Kong" (2005)

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Peter Jackson's "King Kong" doesn't get the respect it deserves and I think it's high time to re-evaluate his epic love letter to the movie that made him want to be a filmmaker in the first place. Is it a little indulgent? Yes. Is it overlong? Maybe. But it's also a fascinating moment where one of our most visionary directors was coming off a landmark trilogy that forever changed the way movies were made with all the clout, creative freedom, and budget that comes with a success as big as "The Lord of the Rings." A lot of the unique chemistry that made "Lord of the Ring" films work is in "Kong" and the more years that pass, the better "Kong" looks.

Why it's essential viewing

The original 1933 "King Kong" is one of Peter Jackson's favorite movies and has been since he was a wee little Kiwi lad running around making Super 8mm movies. A "Kong" remake was his dream project from his earliest days as a filmmaker, so in a lot of ways, his attachment to this world is deeper than his unquestionably deep and admiring love of Tolkien's worlds. In fact, Jackson almost made his "Kong" adaptation before "The Lord of the Rings" and that attempt is what set the stage for those tricksy Hobbits to take over our hearts.

Jackson began his career making ridiculous (in an amazing way) tiny genre films. "Bad Taste" sees a bunch of idiots squaring off against aliens in New Zealand, "Braindead" (aka "Dead Alive") is his ultra-gory zombie comedy (and still my favorite of his movies), and "Meet the Feebles" is like an X-rated "The Muppet Show" where the all-puppet cast is into some seriously kinky stuff and hard drugs behind the scenes.

Then came 1994's "Heavenly Creatures," a quietly beautiful movie about the love story behind a murder starring very young Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. That's the movie that seemingly made Hollywood perk up and notice this odd filmmaking group down at the bottom of the world. It was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar and led to Jackson's first studio movie, the absolutely raucous horror comedy "The Frighteners" for Universal Pictures.

Without King Kong we wouldn't have had The Lord of the Rings

Being the exciting new voice in town, it didn't take long for Jackson and Universal to realize that the studio owned the rights to "King Kong" so they began exploring a new version of that, which included a screenplay from Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh and developing some rough early CGI tests of the titular character.

That version of "Kong" fell apart for a myriad of reasons, mainly tough competition with "Godzilla" and "Mighty Joe Young" already moving forward at other studios, but Jackson ended up using the small digital effects team assembled for "The Frighteners" and those early tests for the CGI "Kong" as the foundation for the now legendary proof-of-concept sizzle reel Weta made to prove the "Lord of the Rings" was viable. Word is the cave troll featured in that sizzle reel used the digital Kong model, sans hair.

In a very backward-but-real way without "King Kong" it's entirely possible we never get "Lord the Rings." As soon as the "Kong" remake fell apart, Jackson and his producers shifted gears to "Rings" and the rest is history.

How King Kong retains some of that LOTR magic

So, now you have some backstory as to why Jackson used his once-in-a-filmmaker's-lifetime power position after "The Return of the King" won all the Oscars and "The Lord of the Rings" pulled in billions of dollars to roll directly into "King Kong." And by directly I mean directly. He rolled right from post-production on "Return of the King" into pre-production on "King Kong."

Keep in mind that equates to four epic fantasy movies shot back to back with no break since somewhere in the 1997/1998 era when pre-production on "Rings" was going full steam ahead. On the heels of "Lord of the Rings," Jackson was uniquely poised to bring "Kong" to life at a budget level that a creature of Kong's statue demanded and he struck while the iron was hot, sleep be damned.

The result is that "King Kong" has so much of the filmmaking energy that went into "Lord of the Rings." What inspires creativity from our great storytellers changes as the years go on and that's certainly happened to Jackson's style. I'm a fan of "The Lovely Bones" and his other more recent work, but it's clear a lot of the playful mischief-maker you can see so much in "Lord of the Rings" has moved to the background. 

Granted, the subject matter of "The Lovely Bones" and his documentary work in recent times doesn't exactly lend itself to a more extravagant or playful filmmaking style and I think if he ever got to make his "Tintin" movie that might have come back in full force, but as it is "Kong" was able to retain a lot of the creative chemistry that Jackson concocted during "Lord of the Rings."

Peter Jackson's take on the classic monster movie is both reverential and uniquely his own style

A good deal of that is because he retained so much of the same crew, from the practical effects of Weta Workshop, the groundbreaking CGI character work from Weta Digital, Andrew Lesnie's perfect eye for beautiful shots, and the day-to-day artisans that were drawn to Stone Street Studios in much the same way Frodo was drawn to the ring of power.

"Kong" is set in the 1930s, the same timeframe as the original and casts Jack Black as a filmmaker with one last hope of success and the crew of misfits he either cons or bribes to venture to a mysterious island drawn on a map, supposedly untouched by modern society and home to creatures that will certainly give his movie some damn good production values.

Along for the ride is the anxious screenwriter (Adrien Brody), a pompous actor (Kyle Chandler), a crusty captain (Thomas Kretschmann), and a desperate, but talented actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Together they get to Skull Island and face the exotic animals and terrifying natives that cohabitate with them. We're talking dinosaurs, giant bugs, slugs with teeth, giant bats, and, of course, Kong himself.

Even if you've never seen one single iteration of Kong on the big screen, you know the movie is about Kong falling in love with this beautiful blonde and you've probably seen the iconic image of Kong standing atop the Empire State Building swatting at bi-planes.

The magic behind the (digital) makeup

Furthering the "Lord of the Rings" connection, Jackson cast Andy Serkis to play Kong, which he did in motion capture just like he did with Gollum and just like with Gollum his performance shows through the digital "makeup," giving Kong the soul that he can sometimes miss in other iterations.

Stop-motion may be outdated by today's standards, but Willis O'Brien's work in the 1933 original was able to give the character a real presence and personality and Jackson used the tools at his disposal to make sure his version was just as alive. Some of that is in the design, in which Kong sports all the physical deformities that come with being the alpha predator in a competitive ecosystem. He's covered in scars and his jaw is crooked and has obviously been broken. His body tells the story of a hard life in an unforgiving environment. In short, although the effects were top of the line at the time, Kong is not this perfectly constructed creature that can be the default for digital artists.

That's why I think the Kong effects hold up very well some 17 years later. Between the beat-up design full of character and implied backstory and Andy Serkis's performance giving him depth you have a real, believable giant ape with relatable emotions and soul in his eyes.

Peter Jackson at the height of his action filmmaking powers

"Kong" was a big hit upon release, but it wasn't "Lord of the Rings" big. That said, it raked in over $500 million in worldwide box office in an era before that was on the low end for tentpoles. My memory is that critical and audience reception was positive but leaned more towards "good, not great."

The pacing was a big issue, I remember, and while I will agree it takes a little too long to get to Skull Island I found on this rewatch that I treasured the character building, especially between the leads, that goes on while they sail to the island. There's a subplot about the relationship between Jimmy the Cabin Boy (Jamie Bell) and shipmate Hayes (Evan Parke) that never fully forms the way I'd like, but it's not bad and adds some emotional weight as the crew members start falling one by one to the flora and fauna of Skull Island.

In terms of action, Jackson is at the height of his game with this movie. There's a janky brontosaurus stampede sequence that looks very greenscreen, but for the most part, the action in this movie is a masterclass in escalation. The centerpiece sequence which sees Kong fighting three T-rexes (or V-rexes as they're called on the merchandising for the movie) to keep Ann safe is flat-out incredible.

Heart-pounding action chock full of character work

It starts slow, with the rexes noticing Darrow and has great peaks and valleys that remind you that Jackson started out as a horror director, particularly when she hides in a log from a large iguana-type creature only to have that thing devoured by a larger carnivore. Then the creepy bugs start coming out, chasing her out of her hiding place and putting her square in the sights of the rex.

The fight isn't as simple as Kong smacking the rexes around and the rexes biting him. The stakes keep getting raised. First, it's Kong fighting on solid ground, dropping Ann from hand to foot and back again to keep her from becoming a dinosaur snack. Then they fall over a cliff's edge and continue the fight while wrapped up in vines and then ultimately it's a showdown between Kong and alpha rex where he steps up as protector and, for the first time, Ann Darrow recognizes this and actively goes to him for protection.

Not only is it paced perfectly, but Jackson also injects so much character into this sequence. Kong is willing to sacrifice part of his body to protect this tiny creature that fits in the palm of his hand. He turns into bites he could easily avoid if he wasn't trying to save this girl.

A love story for the ages

It's exhilarating, impeccably executed, and sets the hook for the final third of the movie, which has Kong captured and brought to New York where he's to be ogled by high society types on stage as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

If you don't buy Darrow's love for Kong and his love for her then what you get is just empty spectacle as Kong tears ass all through 1930s New York. But Jackson earns his tear-jerker ending thanks, in large part, to Watts, Sirkis and the digital wizards at Weta and some clever storytelling tricks, including my favorite scene in the movie.

When Darrow and Kong are reunited in New York they have a quiet moment in Central Park. It's Christmastime and Kong encounters ice for the first time in his life, and in the middle of all the chaos, Jackson pauses to give Kong a little happiness. He has his girl, he's experiencing a new sensation as he slides around on the ice and for one brief moment everything is right in the world. He's free and happy. Of course, that can't last too long, but it helps twist the knife a little bit as he begins his fateful climb up the side of the Empire State Building.

"King Kong" might not be as tight as the "Lord of the Rings" movies are, but Jackson approached it with the same level of care and passion as he did those films. It's a movie that I feel is left out of the conversation a bit and absolutely deserves a revisit.