King Kong

King Kong ★★★★★

Setting the stage for every adventure film that has come since, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's "King Kong" is a both a marvelous spectacle and document of its time. A special effects-driven delight, the film is a robust piece of entertainment whose themes add depth and whose titular beast adds heart to the experience. It is an unforgettable gem from cinema's formative years.

Beginning and ending in Great Depression-era New York City, "King Kong finds a film crew, led by an unflappable showman, preparing a journey to a mysterious and dangerous island where riches may await. On that island dwells Kong, a massive ape whom time and civilization have left undiscovered until the filmmakers disturb his reign. Captured and brought back to New York, the beast wreaks misunderstood havoc until he finally succumbs to powers more dangerous than his island enemies.

"King Kong" has been labeled a beauty and the beast tale, and it does examine that well known archetype. More deeply though, the film observes the exploitation and eventual destruction of the natural world. "King Kong" sends a privileged team into a heart of darkness in order to profit from things exotic. That team, the other when compared to the islands native people and beasts, brings only destruction, however. It upsets the natural balance between human and animal, worshiper and god, and it, eventually, kills. While the film was created to entertain, this subtext adds weight and depth to the enterprise.

Buoyed by Willis O'Brien's pioneering stop-motion effects, Cooper and Schoedsack assemble a rollicking monster movie. Though it shows its age, the film moves quickly through exciting set-pieces that exhibit the wonder of the film's title character and the skill with which he is rendered. The film boasts a hearty energy, skillfully composed set-ups, and a serious tone punctuated with touches of humor.

Though Kong is the star of the show, the film's human cast is just as memorable. With actions and emotions accentuated by a rousing and evocative score, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot cut iconic figures. Presenting a mixture of hubris, heroism, and charm, the actors interact easily with the film's stop-motion star.

"King Kong" is, simply, a great film. Highly entertaining, excellently crafted, and compellingly told, the adventure film creates a template that like-minded films follow to this day. Though it is clearly a product of its time, there is a potent timeliness and timelessness to the film's narrative and themes. It all makes for one of cinema's most spectacular experiences.

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