Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Johnny California: Kong!

 by JB

A recent trip to Universal Studios Hollywood got me wondering about my giant, furry friend.

One of the many perks of moving to California (besides the weather, which is paradise) is my proximity to Universal Studios. Besides being the original home of all my favorite Monster Friends, the fine folks there have built a theme park next to the working soundstages to bleed even more money from the movie-loving masses. I myself am the proud owner of a Triple Gold-Platinum-Ruby Annual Pass, which means: 1) I get to dip my balls in the Butterbeer, 2) I am officially the CEO of Universal Studios for one day per year, and 3) I get free parking. It’s a pretty out-of-sight deal.

Last week, as I do on every visit, I was riding the world-famous Tram Tour... and silently judging the Tour Guide. Judy did a great job. She cued-up more monster-themed content on the tram’s video monitors than I had ever seen on a single tour before. Bravo! One video was a supercut of all the “angry villagers” footage from every Frankenstein movie. Apparently, Judy is a big fan of Key & Peele because she pointed out certain filming locations for that program that were done on the studio backlot. The standing set for Jordan Peele’s recent Nope is now a permanent part of the tour.
One of the highlights of any Tram Tour (besides the flash flood, which, despite being decades old, is still impressive and possesses great nostalgic charm) is the “Kong Encounter,” produced by Peter Jackson and the WETA special effects workshop expressly for the Tram Tour. (A slightly longer version forms the basis of Kong: Skull Island ride at the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando.) I have ridden the Tram Tour innumerable times (sometimes I ride it three or four times in a single visit to the park! Don’t judge me, I have a Triple-Platinum-Ruby-Gold Annual Pass!) so I feel qualified to give my readers the following tips:

1. The best Tram in which to view Kong is the third or fourth one. Trust me.

2. One is hit with a lot more dinosaur slobber sitting on the right-hand side of the Tram car rather than the left.

3. There is no best Tram for the Fast and Furious: Supercharged section of the Tram Tour. It’s awful. It's five incomprehensible minutes of getting jostled by an over-active motion simulator, getting called “family” by Vin Diesel, and getting bored by the 1998-era (era) video-game grade CGI that dominates the ride. At one point, Diesel hangs from the bottom of a flying helicopter and—turns into the Grinch? I couldn't tell.

4. When the Tram glides through the Court of Miracles in the Old European village set, stay seated and don’t get too excited. Although a fire destroyed most of this original set decades ago, YOU CAN STILL GLIMPSE A WALL AND A STAIRCASE THAT WAS ACTUALLY USED IN FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN. (Oh my, I must retire to my fainting chaise! Someone please fetch me a lemon Coke and some ice chips. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Free lemon Cokes are the only perk not included in my Triple-Gold-Ruby-Platinum Annual Pass.)

5. If any of my gentle readers ever ride the Tram Tour, listen closely for the sound of another tourist softly sobbing. That will be me. I am still sad and miss the Earthquake portion of the Tram Tour, which seems to have been permanently discontinued. Boo.
It was revisiting “Kong Encounter” that got me thinking about the 2005 Peter Jackson remake. I didn’t like it much upon its original release, but I hadn’t seen it since. Would the 18 intervening years see me mellowing about this cumbersome epic? When I returned from the Studios, I gave the 4K disc a spin. I chose the Theatrical Cut. (The Extended Cut is 12 minutes longer.) The film as it stands is three hours and change, nicely split into three sections, each almost exactly an hour, which I shall call “Exposition,” “Skull Island,” and “Back in New York.”

The first hour, “Exposition,” saw me hitting myself in the head with a tennis shoe ala Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I wasn’t "wasted"—I was just hitting myself for misjudging the film so harshly upon its original release. The first hour is splendid. All the performances are first-rate, especially stars Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Jack Black as Carl Denham. The recreation of 1930s New York is beautiful: the clothing, buildings, and cars are all painstakingly recreated.

ONE QUIBBLE: When Denham’s desired actress drops out of his new project, Denham and his assistant go through a laundry list of actresses that could fit the costumes that have already been made. The assistant mentions “Fay.” Denham dismisses this, adding that “Fay” is working on “a picture at RKO” with “Cooper.” The “Fay” in question is undoubtedly Fay Wray, the “Cooper” is Merian C. Cooper, and the “RKO Picture” that they are working on is King Kong. You know, that famous fictional film featuring two characters named Ann Darrow and Carl Denham. Wait, what? Thanks, Peter Jackson. For BLOWING MY MIND.

I do love that the lines Ann and movie idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) exchange during camera tests on the boat are actual lines from the 1933 version of Kong. Again, MIND BLOWN. I wouldn’t change a frame of the first hour, although this section might be a little long, given that we still have more than two hours to go.

“Skull Island,” the second section of the film, starts in fine fashion with a rousing sea adventure. Great camera set-ups, imaginative sets, and a wonderful pace serve this section well. We get to Skull Island, and director Peter Jackson starts over-using speed ramping and shock zooms to no clear effect. Could his island and native footage not have packed the intended eerie oomph and so he resorted to these gimmicks? I don’t know. I don’t think they work. It is also on Skull Island that the scale of the film goes haywire. It is a well-known fact that in the original 1933 film, Kong himself experiences a rather abrupt size shift when we move from Skull Island to New York. My problem with Skull Island is that everything from the wall to the sling shot-like device the natives use to lower Ann to her sacrificial alter are so damn big it must have taken previous civilizations centuries to construct them. So how old is Kong? Is this the original Kong... or the Son of Kong? It might be more like the great-great-great-great grandson of Kong, but that is a far less catchy title for a movie. The island is presented as such a big canvas, I theorize that it would take the characters weeks to traverse the distances they did, and yes, I realize their speed was motivated by being chased by a giant gorilla. I get it. I wish the 2005 Skull Island were more human-sized, like in the 1933 original.
Once we get “Back to New York” for the film’s final sequence, the film inexplicably slows down. This is in direct conflict with almost every fictional narrative ever, which tend to speed up as they hurtle towards their various climaxes. In this Kong, everything takes so long. It’s as if Jackson, reimagining his favorite film of all time, can’t bear to leave anything out, even the risible “Kong... on Ice!” sequence. I get it! I still don’t like it, and I think it slows the picture to a crawl, but I get that Jackson wants Ann and Kong to have one wonderful moment together before the inevitable conclusion.

And how about that conclusion? In the 1933 King Kong, once our hairy hero climbs the Empire State Building, the film only has a scant seven minutes left. In Jackson’s bloated epic, once Kong makes his climb, the film goes on for another 17 interminable minutes. Doesn’t conventional wisdom tell us that modern films are paced much faster than stodgy old classics? Hmmmmmm?

While I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Peter Jackson’s handsome fan fiction, I found myself reversing my original position on the first hour, but maintaining my antipathy towards what follows. I usually find that longer films are just “more of a good thing,” but I think the 2005 King Kong would benefit from a strategic 20 to 30-minute Kong-ectomy.

Why am I suddenly hungry for a Butterbeer and a banana?

1 comment:

  1. At the beginning of your text, i was thinking maybe i should revisit this one. But then you got to the second and third part. I think i'll pass

    I actually rewatched all of the most recent Godzilla and Kong movies in 4k blurays, the ones starting with Godzilla in 2014. Man that was a fun time. They have problems, but always have fun with them