Will Jackson become lord of the `King'?

Commentary

October 07, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

When the original King Kong hit theaters in 1933, it was preceded by a special issue of The Hollywood Reporter and accompanied by the nervous prayers of RKO Radio executives, fearful the movie might be the last their nearly bankrupt studio would ever release. With a box-office take of more than $1.2 million, the movie saved RKO, and Kong himself went on to became a cinematic icon.

When producer Dino De Laurentiis remade King Kong in 1976, advance word suggested the film was another masterpiece. Kong's paw, with actress Jessica Lange (in her film debut) firmly clutched in it, made the cover of Time magazine weeks before the film was released. But the finished film proved a major disappointment, especially when it became common knowledge that this Kong was no more than a guy in a gorilla suit.

So, which path is the latest incarnation of King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and due in theaters Dec. 14, more likely to follow?

The big cheeses at Universal are certainly hoping for a reprise of 1933, when Depression-era audiences showed up in droves to see the original. Almost two months before its release, and this year's remake is being counted on to salvage what has been an abysmal year at U.S. box offices. It's unlikely that Kong, by himself, can make up the 6.1 percent drop in box-office receipts from this time last year, but he could end 2005 with a flourish.

The early buzz suggests Universal should have itself a winner. The movie trailer, which can be seen in theaters or downloaded at kingkongmovie.com, looks plenty exciting, with lots of dinosaurs (noticeably lacking in the 1976 version) and a fierce-looking gorilla. The film certainly has a good cast, with Naomi Watts filling Fay Wray's shoes as Ann Darrow, the Big Ape's love interest; Jack Black as Carl Denham, the adventure-film director who tracks Kong to his Skull Island lair; and Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll, Kong's rival for Ann's affections.

And there's no questioning Jackson's credentials. Not only did The Lord of the Rings films bring in close to $3 billion in worldwide box-office receipts, the concluding chapter, The Return of the King, even won a Best Picture Oscar. Kong long has been Jackson's dream project. If this film should fail, it won't be because Jackson wasn't passionate about or respectful of the project.

Fans have been able to closely track the filming, thanks to weekly production logs put on video by Jackson (or at least approved by him) and available for viewing on the fan Web site kongisking.net. They begin with Day 1 of filming, Sept. 7, 2004, continue through the principal photography, which ended April 22. They end (for now) with a log posted Sept. 30 that looks at how the film will use motion-capture technology to bring Kong to life - in much the same way Gollum was brought to the screen for the Rings trilogy. In fact, the same actor who "played" Gollum, Andy Serkis, will be responsible for Kong's on-screen movements.

Of course, advance ballyhoo is no substitute for good filmmaking. It's also possible that the massive hype being generated will result in expectations no film can meet. For all the good buzz Jackson's King Kong is generating, both in the industry and among fans, the specter of De Laurentiis' 1976 effort should loom large in everyone's mind. Fans couldn't wait for that film, either.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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