King Kong

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With Shout! Factory’s announcement today that they’ll be releasing John Guillermin’s King Kong (1976) I thought it would be fitting to discuss this childhood favorite. I must have watched King Kong at least twenty times as a kid. It’s one of those films where you know the original is better, but you enjoy the remake even more. What drew me to King Kong as a child wasn’t the promise of a giant gorilla, but rather Charles Grodin. In a film with a young and sexy Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, little kid me was firmly in the Grodin camp. I love when Charles Grodin shows up in movies you’d never imagine him being cast in.

King Kong really has two things going for it that aren’t Charles Grodin. The main one that everyone talks about is the special effects by Rick Baker and Carlo Rambaldi. Baker is a legend in the world of special effects and it is here that he really began to make a name for himself. The expressions that Kong is capable of are all due to Baker’s designs which, by the standards of the time, are pretty phenomenal. You can see the beginnings of Harry from Harry & The Hendersons (1987) all over King Kong.

The other good thing about this particular Kong Kong is how it handles its relationship to the original film from 1933. The original King Kong was pure pulp; it was fantasy meets adventure by way of a sincere desire to inspire and strike awe into its viewers. The Dino De Laurentiis production on the other hand is so ironic and campy that there is no way an audience could take this film as seriously as the original. But that’s the point. De Laurentiis and company clearly understood that they could never replicate the effect the original film had on audiences so they decided to amplify the playfulness so as to celebrate the wonder of classic escapist Hollywood fare.

The original King Kong is untouchable, the remake from 1976 is its more lighthearted reflection, and the Peter Jackson version from 2005 is the dysfunctional hybrid of the two. If you don’t care for the De Laurentiis version, watch Jackson’s film. Jackson attempts to fuse the pulpy boy’s adventure comic seriousness of the 1933 version with the campy and ironic posturing of the 1976 version only to end up here, there, and everywhere tonally. You can’t play this story for laughs and still expect the audience to thrill with every move that Kong makes. Jackson’s film is just so bad that one can’t help but like the 1976 version more.

What the 1976 version introduced to King Kong that carries over into Jackson’s film is a far more explicit expression of sexual desire on Kong’s part for the Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts characters. Director John Guillermin kind of takes a John Waters approach to this development, treating Kong’s interactions with Jessica Lange as something of a farce. Kong’s eyes bulge and roll as he grins like a maniac while tenderly caressing Lange in the palm of his hand. In 2005, these campy moments designed to subvert the seriousness of the original, are played straight. Arguably there are even times when Jackson takes the Beauty and the Beast aspect of the story too far, entering, unintentionally, into the realm of self parody.

So I’m not saying that the King Kong of America’s bicentennial is the best, I’m just insisting that it’s second best and worthy of another look. There’s enough original ideas and perspectives derived from the original to make it a worthwhile remake. If nothing else, the 1976 version is still the only version with Charles Grodin.