All Hail King Kong

Some stories are timeless, as director Peter Jackson proves with his latest vfx epic, King Kong. This CG-laden remake of the 1933 classic monster movie promises to be one of the year’s biggest blockbusters, especially with all the dough Universal has spent marketing this $200 million voyage to Skull Island, which opens in theaters around the world today.

Jackson’s faithful re-imagining of Meriam C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Shoedsack’s larger-than-life adventure yarn stars Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, a struggling actress coaxed by film producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) to star in a dubious motion picture shooting on a mysterious island. She eventually falls in love with the film’s writer, played by Adrien Brody, who comes to the rescue when Anne is offered up to a 24-foot tall gorilla, a local deity the island natives call Kong.

The great ape in the original King Kong was brought to life by vfx pioneer Willis O’Brien, who used stop-motion animation and rear-screen projection to make audiences believe that an 18-inch model gorilla was a living, breathing beast towering over humans. The movie was a massive hit, saving RKO Pictures from bankruptcy and spawning a quickly made sequel, Son of Kong. Both films were recently restored and released together on DVD. They are packaged with the 1940 Ray Harryhausen favorite, Mighty Joe Young, another overgrown ape pic produced by Cooper and Shoedsack to capitalize on the popularity of Kong.

King Kong was remade once before in 1976 by producer Dino De Laurentiis. Despite fine acting by Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, and, of course, the jaw-dropping screen debut of Jessica Lange, the modernized update has few fans among Kong devotees. The film features master vfx make-up artist Rick Baker in an ape suit, scaling the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Universal’s new version marks the return of an animated Kong, brought to the screen by the digital magicians at Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta, the Oscar-wining vfx shop behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Actor Andy Serkis, who provided the motion-captured performance of Gollum in those films, wiggled into a mo-cap suit again to monkey around as Kong. More details of the making of the film can be seen in King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries, a two-disc compilation of behind-the-scenes footage released on DVD on Tuesday. You can also read about Weta’s work in the January issue of Animation Magazine, now available at Barnes & Noble and other fine booksellers.