King Kong

King Kong ★★★★½

"Then something went wrong for Fay Wray and King Kong..."

There's something fascinating about KING KONG that holds up more than 80 years later. It's a film that's inspired various remakes, sequels, spinoffs, and countless imitators. But despite all this, people keep coming back to the original 1933 film.

Maybe it's the fact that it's filled with iconic moment after iconic moment. It is a movie that truly understands the language of cinema, constantly using Willis O'Brien's groundbreaking FX in almost every scene. Modern audiences might look at these FX and think they look primitive, but they still manage to impress because of how much passion is put into them. Kong is a fully-realized character, one who emotes, who shows real pain when he is shot, real anger when he fights a dinosaur, and real humiliation when he is captured and put on display. The filmmakers could have chosen anything to be their giant monster, yet they chose a giant gorilla, one of the most graceful creatures on the Earth. The result is that Kong always has our sympathy; he is a beast who is just human enough that we can feel pathos for him in a way that, say, has never been true for Godzilla.

Skull Island truly creates a sense of space. Just look at how much craftsmanship is in every frame of the stop-motion animation. When Kong fights the dinosaur, it isn't just a simple fight; it's painstaking in how brutal it gets, and when the dinosaur's jaw is snapped broken, we truly feel it. Even the finale on the Empire State Building, a moment of fantasy that is perhaps what the Empire State Building is still most famous for today, is a moment played out in agonizing detail. Kong isn't just shot by the airplanes; he is slowly beaten down, slowly weakened, while the camera swoops in POV shots of fighter-pilots. It is Pure Cinema: all these different uses of the medium coming together to convey a moment of grand emotion.

The weakest part of the movie is, frankly, the human characters. Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are both adequate as the leads, but the dialog is pretty meh. The romance between Ann and Jack (Bruce Cabot) is shallow and one-note. The Peter Jackson remake compensated for this by giving Jack (played by Adrien Brody in that film) way more backstory, though none of it was needed. And the savage natives are caricatures and not very politically correct by today's standards.

Still, KING KONG is a towering achievement, one that rises above the genre of just a "monster movie" to become a grand parable. Both Ray Harryhausen and Peter Jackson were inspired to go into filmmaking from viewing it as children. Supposedly, it was even Adolf Hitler's favorite film. And to entire generations, it is a movie that has continued to win over young imaginations with its simple yet human storytelling. Movies are always better when they have gorillas in them, but KING KONG is one of the crown jewels of Cinema.

Part of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies List

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