Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a good girl. And in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, she’s got plenty of opportunity to show just how good she is. Surviving the Depression in New York City, she juggles and cartwheels across a vaudeville stage, alongside black tap dancers and girl acrobats. Pale and scrappy, dressed like Chaplin and spinning her hat on her cane, Ann smiles and smiles, no matter how rude the audience response. She’s glad to be working.
And then she’s not. When the theater closes its doors, leaving Ann and her troupe mates on the street with nowhere to go and no money for food, she turns almost forlorn, briefly. In her charming flapper’s hat and shabby coat, she spends only a moment looking in the window of a burlesque house, then turns away, determined to maintain her goodness rather than sell herself cheap.
It’s at this point of crisis, as Ann walks wearily from the burlesque joint and tries halfheartedly to steal an apple that she meets film director Carl Denham (Jack Black). More precisely, he descends on her, offering a nickel to purchase the apple, then treating her to a full-on diner meal. She sits across from him, wolfing down her food and wondering about his motives: “What kind of person are you?” You’re already a step ahead, as you’ve seen the showman Denham is a schemer and an opportunist, recently threatened with shutdown by his wary producers (“He’s a preening self-promoter”) and sneakily in search of a new leading lady for his current project — “sneakily,” because, he has no money to pay her or her costar, the self-loving Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler).
Just before Denham finds Ann, he and his morally sound assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) are speeding away from an angry financier. Pondering his options on learning his girl star has quit, Denham notes that he can’t get “Fay,” who’s making a picture with “Cooper,” name-drops demonstrating Jackson’s affection for his inspiration, the 1933 King Kong. In fact, the 2005 film’s relationship to the original is consistently intriguing, in part because it remains so fraught (while there’s something to be said for the giant Kong hands that clutched Jessica Lange in the 1976 version, that film is not so much in dialogue here).
Jackson’s adaptation — written with his usual collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens — follows Merion Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s film in examining the excesses and vagaries of show business, most plainly embodied by the cynical, devious, and strangely self-knowing Denham. A stand-in for all sorts of driven, arrogant, and beleaguered filmmakers, he turns his excursion to Skull Island grandly delusional.
Not only does he convince Miss Darrow (whom he deems “the saddest girl I’ve ever met”) to take a chance, he also tricks earnest playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), into coming along and stern Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) into persisting until they literally crash into the island. (Denham also finds a way to turn the loss of his crewmembers into reasons to go on, as he insists that each dies “doing what he loves,” and so must be remembered by completing the projecting and “donating the proceeds to his wife and children.”)
Still, as calamitously egotistical and jackblacky as Denham may be, he’s not so different from Robert Armstrong’s first version. And Jack, though he’s a writer now and not a sailor, is a more or less standard romantic lead, sensitive and courageous (that he’s assigned a writing desk inside an animal cage on the boat is a mildly funny sight gag). While the men follow pattern, what sets the new movie apart from its predecessor is its characterization of Ann, and specifically her relationship to Kong. Taking a page from the Mighty Joe Young movies, this Kong has Ann empathize and even fall a bit in love with her gigantor captor. She’s not alone: as played by Andy Serkis in another stunning motion-capture performance, the gorilla is part playful child, part ferocious he-man, and part responsible adult, all devoted to the golden-haired “beauty” to whom Denham attributes his demise (in the famous last line, “It was beauty killed the beast”).
But it’s not beauty that kills him. It’s greed, meanness, and fear that destroy Kong’s “nature” and “wildness,” his emblematic manhood, indeed, his “darkness.” As many viewers have pointed out, the 1933 film is pervaded by disturbing racism, in its depictions of the Skull Island natives, extended to the fearful specter Kong provides in relation to the perfect white woman. Jackson’s film makes Ann’s admiration for Kong a distraction from her eventual, proper coupledom with Jack (who, even with Brody’s Men’s Health coverboy abs, can’t compete with the potent spectacle of Kong). And while she’s enthralled with the ape, she’s no longer sad, except as she recognizes their mutual affection will only lead to his demise.
Though she does her share of screaming, Ann quickly shows a plucky, even droll sensibility, as she figures her way through Kong’s bluster to appreciate his devotion. Not only does she scamper through jungles and scrape down mountainsides in bare feet and a slip, she also comes to see (with her gigantic blue eyes, in frequent close-up) into Kong’s desires, deliberations, and devices. Once she realizes that he means to save her from dinosaurs (who look terrific as long as they’re not in the same frame with human actors, whereupon they are suddenly quite 2D), she also understands that he doesn’t need quelling by her human male associates.
They insist, of course, that he must be subdued, and a few choice scenes underline Kong’s ferocity regarding others (they spot a stash of bones, skeletons of other sacrifice victims who have been “ripped limb from limb”). But this Ann, rather than fearing Kong, comes to respect and care for him and so, is increasingly horrified by Denham’s pains to capture, chain, and display him.
At the same time, her evolving affection for Kong (her first efforts to appease him, dancing and juggling as she did on stage, are bizarrely charming) is markedly different from the worship acted out by the natives who kidnap and sacrifice her to him (with ropes and rattles and pounding drums). The adventurers’ first contact with the island natives and the ritual sacrifice scene make the black primitives as “other” as they can be — captured in nightmarish stop-go pans and blurs. This imagery rowdily elaborates on the first film, demonizing the locals with rolled-back eyes and guttural pronouncements.
In this context, the blackness of the ship’s courageous and sensible first mate, Hayes (Evan Parke), seems something of preemptive casting decision. As he allays potential accusations of racism, he is undeniably charismatic and looks after cabin boy Jimmy (Jamie Bell), also infatuated with Ann. It’s telling that Hayes does not see the reenactment of the tribal ritual as Denham’s stage show, populated by performers in overtly offensive blackface. If this scene illustrates the movie’s awareness of the problem (the crude translation of blackness by a white “producer”), it’s not quite a resolution.
Neither is the relationship between Ann and Kong, though she tries mightily to do right. A couple of brief, idyllic intervals (gazing on a sunset from atop Skull Mountain, sliding playfully on a lake in Central Park) only underline the impossibility of their romance, as they are violently interrupted. Ann’s decision to take up with the gorilla against his assailants is less a considered choice than a kind of reverie, an effort to reclaim her own sense of delight, to stave off the evils of the Depression, show business, and ambition. “Good things never last,” she tells Denham when she meets him. If he’s the embodiment of her fear, Kong is the last stand against it. It’s Ann and Kong’s romance that drives the film and at least addresses the complex race dynamics. At once sensational and heartrending, it’s an intimacy that can’t last.