Aping A Classic

Why did Peter Jackson decide to retell the classic film about the oversized primate and the blonde he loved?


When it comes to King Kong, why not leave well-enough alone?

At first blush, it would seem difficult to improve upon this extraordinary American film, the story of a giant gorilla and his unrequited love for a beautiful blonde. Images from the film have become mainstays of popular culture: Kong roaring at an attacking tyrannosaurus, Kong astride the New York skyline with a terrified Fay Wray dangling from his oversized paw, Kong plummeting to his death from atop the Empire State Building.

No one talks seriously about remaking Casablanca, or The Wizard of Oz, or Citizen Kane, or Gone With the Wind. On those rare occasions when a classic is born again -- remember Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, from 1998? -- the result satisfies almost no one.

And yet, 72 years after the original's release, King Kong is being re-imagined -- by a director who has positioned himself as the 1933 film's No. 1 fan. So why, Peter Jackson? Why tamper with the collective memory of millions of moviegoers, men and women with nothing but love and admiration for the big ape and his unlikely love affair?

The answer harks back to a 9-year-old boy watching TV on a Friday night in New Zealand, staring transfixed at a world he knew existed only in some filmmaker's imagination and wanting to re-create the illusion as quickly as possible.

"I just think of the original movie as the most wonderful piece of escapism," says Jackson, whose memories of that first encounter with Kong remain vivid. "It does everything that a good escapist movie should do. It has the coolest stuff -- remote, hidden islands with dinosaurs and giant apes. And it has an emotional story that makes you tear. Which it did to me. I cried when I was 9.

"The very next day," he continues, "I got my parents' super-8 movie camera and started to do stop-motion animation with clay dinosaurs, a clay brontosaurus, actually, that I made."

All this happened in the days before VCRs. There were no revival houses in young Peter's neighborhood, so the only way he could see Kong again was to pray it would be rebroadcast on the country's lone television station.

"It didn't come on TV again for years and years and years," Jackson recalls. "There used to be documentaries on occasionally that would have excerpts of Kong in them, and if I saw something promo-ed that had a chance that it was going to have a little 20-second excerpt [in it], then I'd sit and wait, and I'd see it and I'd get goose bumps when a stop-motion scene, a little clip from Kong, would come on."

Fast-forward 35 years. Jackson, 44, is an Oscar-winning director, the man whose vision brought J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen and collected nearly $3 billion in worldwide box-office receipts. That sort of success tends to give filmmakers carte blanche for their next project. The choice was obvious.

"I've always wanted to remake Kong," he says. "It's my favorite film, and it's a wonderful story. As a film fan, and as a Kong fan, I really wanted to see it done with the technology we have now."

Or, as Richard Taylor, who was in charge of the new film's special makeup, creatures and miniatures, puts it, "The idea is just that we had better cameras than they did."

That kind of respect for the big ape, along with the film's reported $220 million-plus budget, has given Kong state-of-the-art special effects that should satisfy even the most discriminating contemporary moviegoers. While film pioneer Willis O'Brien's work on the 1933 Kong set a gold standard that wouldn't be surpassed for more than four decades -- until George Lucas and Star Wars came along -- improved computer graphics have brought an increased fluidity and realism to animation. As fierce as the original Kong appeared, he didn't look much like a real gorilla. Shrink down the new Kong about 18 feet or so, and you've got a gorilla Jane Goodall could love.

Kong's movements were acted out by Andy Serkis, who performed a similar function for the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Motion sensors attached to Serkis' body translated his movements into language a computer could read and put onto film.

"I said to Peter, 'I'd love to really go down the road of making him as true to real gorilla behavior as possible,'" says Serkis. "Although the original Kong was a sympathetic character, and did have a heart, physically, he ... represented this image of when gorillas were shot and stuffed and put in museums, where they were put up on two feet, with fists clenched. Gorillas don't actually chest-beat with their clenched fists."

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