There’s always an inherent danger in remaking a much-beloved classic film like King Kong. Even if a remake succeeds on its own, it will naturally be compared to its predecessor and face unreasonably high expectations. It’s harder to have sympathy for the creators of a remake, as their task may have been a mistake from the beginning. All remakes are challenges, but revamping a classic like 1933’s King Kong was a particularly ambitious endeavor. Not only was the original film a game changer within the industry that revolutionized visual effects, but the titular character had become one of the most powerful symbols of cinematic imagination and wonder. However, Peter Jackson’s 2005 reimagining showed how to do a remake right by intertwining nostalgia with new additions.
Peter Jackson Was Influenced by the Original ‘King Kong’ as a Young Filmmaker
1933’s King Kong was among the first major monster movies in the pre-Code era of Hollywood, and utilized groundbreaking stop motion effects to bring the creatures of Skull Island to life. With a stunning score by Max Steiner and powerful performances by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, King Kong felt like an “elevated” piece of escapism and not just a cheap horror flick. The film had a significant impact on a younger generation of filmmakers, particularly Peter Jackson, who often cites it as the reason that he got into filmmaking in the first place. Many of Jackson’s early New Zealand splatter horror films, such as Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles, made use of the same type of motion capture and practical effects techniques that King Kong had pioneered decades prior.
Jackson had certainly taken on an ambitious project with his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved The Lord of the Rings series, but that was the first live-action adaptation of the Middle-earth story. Not only was King Kong a cinematic character first and foremost, but he had been revisited already in several underwhelming follow ups, including the disappointing sequel Son of Kong, the cheap cash-in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and the derivative 1976 remake from John Guillermin. However, Jackson managed to approach the material as both an admirer and an artist; it was impossible to doubt his affinity for the original film’s most iconic moments, but he expanded on areas that could benefit from more detail.
Jackson Understood With ‘King Kong,’ Theatricality Was Key
Given that King Kong was initially set in what was present day, many of the sequels have attempted to replicate that fact. 1976’s King Kong largely failed because the commentary on the oil industry simply wasn’t as exciting as the deconstruction of the entertainment industry was in the original. Jackson understood that the theatricality was integral to the story, but setting it in a modern context could remove the sense of wonder that spectacle generates. Going back to a “simpler time” allowed him to play things more sincerely, yet reflect on how the hallmarks of this era had aged.
Making a period piece set in the 1930s is a completely different beast than making a present-set film during the 1930s; Jackson had the advantage of foresight, and he used the film to deconstruct the cultural legacy of 1930s Hollywood. While this era was a period of great invention and breakthroughs, it was shrouded in controversy due to many of the dangerous filmmaking techniques and mistreatment of industry workers. While Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow alludes to some of the struggles she faced during her career, Jackson spends more time fleshing out how truly worthless and desperate Naomi Watts’ version of the character is.
Jackson also uses the context of a pre-war setting to examine cynicism. Part of Carl Denham’s (Jack Black) idealism in making the ultimate adventure film feels like a response to the shroud of World War I; if mankind has poured endless resources into warfare, why not do the same thing for something that can provide joy? There are also some more tongue-in-cheek acknowledgments of early Hollywood, such as the egotistical actor Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), a stand-in for Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Thomas Mitchell, and other classic Hollywood stars known for their self-absorbed reputations.
Given that the original film is around 90 minutes and Jackson’s is over three hours, there’s more time to flesh these characters out and expand on their motivations. Jackson spends more time on the boat that leads into Skull Island, which gives time for Fay’s romance with Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) to be more impactful. Jackson identifies them both as “dreamers” who have given their lives to their craft, yet shows they aren’t willing to sacrifice their morality like Denham. It’s more inspiring to see them connect over their shared belief that Kong should not be taken from his home.
Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ Visual Effects Honored the Original
Visual effects do not make a movie, but part of the original King Kong’s influence was how game changing the motion capture footage was. It would feel almost disrespectful if Jackson didn’t attempt to take those same leaps forward by showing that same ambition with today’s CGI effects. The original film still holds up due to the storytelling, even if the effects seem dated. Similarly, Jackson’s realistic skin tones for the wildlife of Skull Island have now been surpassed by films like the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy and The Jungle Book, but that doesn’t change the emotional impact with which the film lands.
The biggest improvement that Jackson was able to make was fleshing out Kong’s personality with Andy Serkis’ performance. While Serkis had certainly proven with Gollum that he could play an engaging motion capture character, he was now tasked with essentially being the lead in a film that didn’t let him speak it all. Would the timid connection that Kong forms with Ann feel too corny for modern audiences? Thanks to the personality that Serkis added to Kong, it didn’t. It was only more clear that Kong is a scared child, stolen from his home, who has been taken into an unfriendly environment and treated as a freak show. Compared to the cruel soldiers that gun him down in the harrowing third act, Kong doesn’t seem as “animalistic.”
While the T-Rex battle and the escape from Skull Island look even more stunning with the advent of modern effects, Jackson understood that it was emotion that drove the film. His revisions to the original material are effective in fleshing out the supporting characters, such as Colin Hanks’ personal assistant, Jamie Bell’s unassuming teenager, and Craig Hall’s loyal soundman; he shows how each of these crew members are the type of “outsiders” are driven to the film industry. However, Jackson doesn’t change the most pitch-perfect moments from the original; “it was beauty as killed the beast” is just as gut-punching as it was in 1933.
The best remakes are done with both respect and perspective on their original films. Jackson has clearly studied, analyzed, and broken down aspects of the original King Kong for his entire life, and he did not approach his remake with rose-tinted glasses. The two projects are largely similar in story and themes, but unlike the “shot for shot” remakes of classics (such as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho and the recent Disney live-action remakes), he doesn’t simply reiterate moments without contextualizing them. 2005’s King Kong both expands the 1933 film’s characters and commentary with modern insights, but doesn’t take away the spectacle and emotion that haven’t aged a day.