King Kong (1933) [DVD]

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I caught a bit of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the famous classic movie King Kong on one of the digital channels the other week, and it immediately made me want to watch more. More of the original 1933 version, that is, which I hadn’t seen in an age. So I duly sat down and unsurprisingly loved every minute of it, finding it as delightful and exciting as I ever did. Clearly there was no comparison with the overblown 21st century production which, while a labour of love for Jackson, nonetheless failed to recapture the timeless appeal of the first and best version.

And yet it quickly occurred to me that in almost every objective measurement, the 2005 version is clearly superior. Better written, better acted, and – with all due deference to the then-pioneering visual effects of the original that laid the basis for FX for decades thereafter – with vastly superior effects, I found myself having to ask: is my love of the original film just a product of rose-tinted nostalgia and not backed up by the cold hard reality?

Take the first scene of the 1933 original: it has two anonymous characters meeting by a ship’s boarding point to share some important scene-setting exposition for almost two minutes. Neither character plays any significant role in what’s to follow, so the whole thing is incredibly clunky – the sort of thing that even a film school student on his or her first day of study wouldn’t try to get away with. The acting is stiff and formal, as you’d expect from an industry still feeling its way with sound recording and daily having to import green talent from Broadway stages to replace the former star that looked good but had no way with dialogue for the talkies.

The FX might have startled, confounded and thrilled audiences at the time but now even a child can see through the use of models, rear and front projection and matte paintings. You can tick them off as you go. Where once people looked at Kong and wondered, “How did they film that?” now we’re all too aware of the flurry of stop-motion ripples across Kong’s fur caused every time an animator has to touch the model and disturb his pelt to generate every movement by the ape. Criticise the 2005 version all you like, but its FX are impeccably photo-realistic down to the very last pixel by comparison.

The 1933 version is written and paced like a basic B-movie or a Saturday morning serial, keeping moving all the time until the very end. The 2005 version is more nuanced, although of course it’s also significantly more bloated which works against it: post-Lord of the Rings, Jackson just couldn’t seem to reign himself back in again. One sequence where characters fall into vines stretching across a deep chasm is a five-second scene in the original but an entire three minute action set-piece in the remake (and as for the dinosaur stampede in the 2005 film – that really needed cutting outright.)

But overall, the 2005 Kong is surely better in every area that matters. Perhaps it’s just time to put away childish things and concede that while the original was fun, it’s of the past and really rather rather poor when viewed objectively?

Except … I can’t help but wonder, if you showed both films to a young kid today, which one would they remember in, say, six months time? Which would they reference while playing in the back garden with their toys and action figures? I suspect the Jackson effort would be quickly forgotten and fall into the general background noise of the general churn of action movies that come and go on a weekly basis; if they play any ‘giant ape’ scenarios at all, it’ll be the quirky back and white models than they’re thinking of restaging as they do.

In many ways it’s precisely because you can see how the 1933 effects are being done by some guys with models that inspires people who see it to think: “I know how they did that … and I can do it too.” It helps grow a whole new generation of FX artists for the film industry, whether or not they go on to use models or computer graphics packages in their profession. After all, it was watching the 1933 King Kong that inspired a young Ray Harryhausen to go into the business of film making, and his films down the decades in turn inspired hundreds more to do likewise. I suspect the same is true today, whereas no one ever looked at the latest CGI blockbuster and thought, “Oh, that’s magical, I want to spend the rest of my life at a computer keyboard!” Most people’s reaction to state-of-the-art CGI these days seems to be more along the lines of: “Meh.”

Yes, the 2005 King Kong might well be superior when compared point-by-point in a dry objective fashion with the 1933 original. But that’s why the 1933 King Kong is best and most accurately described as ‘incomparable’ even today, 80 years after it was made, and why it’s still one of the must-watch features for anyone who has ever loved any film in the entire history of motion pictures.

The 1933 King Kong is available on DVD. The 2005 version is widely available in multiple DVD and Blu-ray versions.

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