Character Animation in 3D
Use traditional drawing techniques to produce stunning CGI animation
When a film made in the thirties becomes a classic and a source of inspiration, there's got to be a reason. Peter Jackson's ("Lord of the Rings") shows us what it is and takes it a few visionary miles further. If you have any doubts about the credibility of a devotion between woman and beast, the performances here are enough to clear them away. No guarantees about the tears in your eyes, however, for a heartbreaking story. There were a lot of things going on in 1933 -- bad things. Things like the depression that kept the masses in poverty and creative artists struggling on the edges. Vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is one of them, having a particularly bad time when her show closes. She's out on the street, and desperate.
Also desperate is filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) who is planning to make an adventure story about a tramp steamer finding an unknown island -- a project the studio turned down. Before the studio heads catch wind that he's made off with his most recent footage, he's frantically making arrangements to pull all his production elements together and leave Dodge (Manhattan). The Singapore-bound S.S. Venture piloted by Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann, "U-571") and crewed by a motley lot, stands ready at the dock.
When Denham spots Ann lifting an apple from an outdoor market stand, he realizes that he's found his female lead. After some convincing ("I'm someone you can trust--I'm a movie producer!"), she boards the vessel, little knowing that her literary idol, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is aboard, handing Denham his first 15 pages of an unpaid-for, unfinished script. When Ann and Driscoll meet after the boat takes off barely ahead of the cops, it's love at first sigh.
Denham starts filming when Englehorn is under way and while Driscoll is pouring out script pages in the hold. Ann emotes with her "B"-movie co-star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), an essentially good natured chap in love with himself. The boat's on a course for Singapore but Denham tricks the captain into altering it and they run into the fabled, uncharted Skull Island where a primitive tribe takes Ann as a sacrifice to the huge ape that pretty much rules the place.
The attempt to find and rescue her brings the entire crew into harm's way but a thrilled Denham doesn't stop filming the spontaneous adventure. He's counting big receipts in his head for the amazing footage he's capturing. Like their entanglement in a Brontosaurus stampede (a glorious moment in 2-D/3-D integration).
All of which has been juicy fun and mildly farcical, a burlesque of an errant film venture. But, farce turns to something more serious and riveting when the life of the silk clad heroine is being carried deep into the jungle in the hand of a monster. It's here that director Jackson and his writers show that he's a whole lot more than a superb visual craftsman. We come now to a change of tone and the core of the story.
The ape is delighted with his latest sacrificial captive, but it's not long before he tires of it and is ready to throw his little plaything down a cliff to join the skeletal bones of her predecessors. When that plan is thwarted, the gorilla returns with Ann to his lair and, for the first time, Ann has a chance to study the creature, to look into his eyes, to take his measure. She discovers that there's a thinking brain lurking behind the eyes. Soon, she detects that in his primitive way, he's responsive to her, much as a child might be to a live toy. She suppresses her fear and performs for him, challenging him to outdo her and, though he's petulant, he's fully engaged with her as a playmate. No longer an object to be dumped.
In fact, the colossal animal shows us the depth of his understanding when, weighing his captive's desire to flee against his own gratifications of ownership, he allows her to go! But her race through the jungle to get back to her team isn't so simple. The place is teaming with predators, and soon a Tyrannosaurus Rex spots her. This leads to a deadly game of hide and seek, a contest between three T. Rexs and, finally, the standoff when Ann finds herself between the dominant T. Rex and the ape, who has heard her screams. It's a riveting moment of decision as Ann slowly moves to the protection of her former captor, establishing a whole new level of relationship and trust. Is this not a masterful piece of staging?
The imagination that went into the ensuing fight between ape and 3 T. Rexs will go down in the annals of digital creation for some time to come, taking place on the ground and suspended from jungle vines, as 3 dimensional a concept for brute battle as ever designed. The ape, holding Ann in his protective hand, nearly sacrifices his own life in order to rescue his new friend, and their bond to one another will never again be questioned. The flawlessly executed choreography of four massive animals in combat to the death while swinging from vines is breathtaking inspiration. Even more so for the depth of emotion it expresses and the story turn it accomplishes. Here is where the monster ape becomes our damsel's hero... and ours, as well. It's the moment that fulfills the price of admission and the awards that will flow for Jackson's masterpiece of action and computer graphics in the service of exhilarating storytelling.
The brilliance here exceeds just about any effects driven spectacular that has shown up on the big screen, "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," and "Star Wars" series included! Most of all, it demonstrates what can be done to realize an ultimate storytelling level by casting one of the best actresses on the planet.
Watts, turning fright into spunky resourcefulness as a means for survival, and fear into a deeply convincing emotional bond, puts us at her inventive fingertips even as she's at Kong's. We become her willing captives just as she's his. She exhibits the conditioning and endurance of an athlete with as much running as a racer in a track meet, and that's in addition to the screaming and squirming, jumping and acrobatics. The clinging mid-thigh gown on a fit well-conditioned body is cream on the cake of visual delights. The lady is all over the place, in our esteem most of all.
The need to expose the internal thought and feeling of a wordless gorilla creation is a challenge of demanding proportion, and the great subtlety of expression rendered by Weta Digital, employing state-of-the-art capture technique off Andy Sarkis' acting, achieves an unseen level of scale and performance. Watts' leading man's expressive realism imparts unforgettable nobility to his character.
Yet, I have to add a little critical carping, mostly in terms of length and overstatement. How could it be improved? By condensing the first act and getting to the jungle sacrifice and heart of the story sooner; by abbreviating the brontosaurus stampede, as spectacular as it is (ok, 10%); and by eliminating the unnecessary attack of those spidery creatures--what would then remain is a more effective concentration of essentials unspoiled by overindulgence.
That said, this is film alchemy that will be talked about well after the last light is turned off at the Academy Awards. In fact, if it receives no other award, it virtually demands recognition for Fran Walsh's and Philippa Boyens' screenplay. Under Peter Jackson's vision of possibilities for the seamless integration of 3-D imagery with 2-D live action (Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, "Lord of the Rings" series, "Babe") as much as for the superb combining of spectacle and tragedy, a new standard has been established. It'll be very difficult to match, let alone top. This team's rendering of an unusual love story takes us to a very unexpected region of the heart.
The DVD - (The original in restored Black and White)
The Soundtrack Album
The DVD - (The original in restored Black and White)