Though both films follow the same narrative arc, the spirit of John Guillermin’s King Kong really starts where the original left off, with commercialism and corporate greed taking the place of adventure and heroism. Carl Denham, the brave but reckless moviemaker after the greatest animal picture of all time, is replaced by Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an oil company executive seeking to stick it to Shell and Exxon with the biggest oil strike ever. And perhaps this could have worked, if Wilson was half the hero that Denham was. But instead Jack Driscoll, Denham’s loyal first mate who “goes soft” on Ann Darrow, is himself replaced by Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), an outsider who stows away aboard the ship, and whose function (he’s a primate paleontologist and nature lover) is to show how evil Wilson is, while it’s unlikely he ever cares more about Dwan (Jessica Lange) than Kong. Not that Dwan’s any different: she’s young and naive, but also opportunistic and ambitious. This is a movie every bit as cynical as its poster, which proclaims in bold red letters that it is “the most exciting original motion picture event of all time” (emphasis mine).
I don’t want to give the impression that cynicism has no place in the movies, or even in this movie. It’s weak, toothless cynicism that bothers me. The mistake made here was Jack, specifically making Jack with his noble ideas the hero of the story. He weakens Wilson, who is, after all, the prime mover in all that happens, and he is, in the end, notably ineffectual. He’s a drag on the whole story. And this is the guy we’re supposed to identify with.
Him, or Kong. Kong’s a bunch of props and a guy in an ape suit, but he’s the most human character in the movie. The effects are uneven, but when they work, they’re quite effective, such as when we first see him plowing through the jungle on his way to take Dwan from her matrimonial altar and when, back in his lair, he plays with her and dips her under a waterfall.
But even Kong is weak here. The only other monster he (or anyone) fights is a sadly ridiculous snake and his rampage through the native village is stopped at its very gate. This isn’t Beauty and the Beast, it’s Beauty and the Misunderstood Loner. He’s too human. Making him a giant ape is merely an exercise in excess.
I do like segments of the film and the performances are good. Jessica Lange was criticized for her performance, but she also got handed the movie’s worst dialogue, so she was handicapped to begin with. But it is its own worst enemy, sapping its strength by going in too many directions at once. It does this, ironically, for the same reason Denham, in the original, brought a girl along in the first place — to please the masses. But, according to Denham, everyone wanted to see a pretty girl. Here, Guillermin and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., aren’t trying to unite the audience, they’re trying to please each part of it in their own way.