King Kong

King Kong ★★★★★

Ranking the King (Kong, that is)

Movie Magic!

The aspect of filmmaking that most captured my imagination, at a very early age, was the capacity for pure invention. Sure, the motion picture in and of itself is a magical thing. Edison and the Lumière brothers forever changed the world. But changing the world is mere child's play compared to creating entirely new worlds whole cloth. The invention of special effects has always been, to me, where the real magic lies. Anyone can point a camera at a thing, capturing its reflected light and imprisoning it on film, but it takes real genius to film a thing that has yet to exist. To photograph the realm of pure imagination. To create something from nothing. Or, rather, from the ephemeral fabric of dreams. Flights of fancy. Movie magic!

It didn't take long, after the birth of cinema, for intrepid pioneers to begin experimenting with camera trickery. It was discovered early on, that one could stop the camera briefly to add or subtract some element in relation to the scene, before starting the camera rolling again. In 1895, the film The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots introduced the first known effects shot, producing a convincing beheading where none took place. It wasn't long after this that Georges Méliès entered the scene. A former stage magician, immediately spellbound by this new form of magic, who set about pioneering the use of camera trickery to bring the fantastical to life. He would lay the foundation for what would come, codifying the use of techniques such as the "stop-trick", fast/slow motion, double exposure, and dissolves. He also experimented with perspective-based illusions. And it is through his early films that we see the birth and potential of special effects as a set of tools that could be utilized to manifest the impossible. Movie Magic!

However, it wasn't Méliès who inspired the filmmakers I grew up with. No, it wasn't he who planted the seed for the films that subsequently captured my imagination. That honor goes to the man who created a giant ape and imbued it with life, as if echoing the ambitions of the original mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein. It goes to none other than the great Willis Harold O'Brien, a man who wrangled a convincing performance from a 24-foot-tall ape that didn't exist. Movie magic!

If you grew up in the age of computer-generated visual effects, you may never fully understand the impact that this film had on audiences of its day. The people who saw this in theaters, in 1933, hadn't become jaded by an endless procession of Hollywood blockbusters, slathered with computer-generated spectacle. No, the audience of 1933 had never seen anything like this. They had no knowledge of the techniques used to create such a convincing (for its time) illusion. You may scoff at the notion now, but these people believed this giant ape was actually real, somehow. This film was nothing short of miraculous. Movie magic!

There are so many things that I love about this film. Things that I don't think any of the modern remakes could ever hope to recapture. At the core of this film is pure movie magic. Magic generated by the creative genius of Willis O'Brien, who did the impossible when it was still impossible. You see, that's the key distinction, isn't it? It's amazing precisely because it had never been done. I'm not amazed by Peter Jackson's CG-laden retelling because it was made at a time where anything was possible. The real magic of special effects, in my opinion, is the art of showing the audience something they believe impossible to capture on film. Therefore, in an age where we believe nothing to be impossible, nothing can be magical. No one in 2022 is going to have their mind blown the way people did in 1933 when they watched a giant ape climb the Empire State Building, or wrestle a dinosaur. What Willis O'Brien showed them, at the time, was tantamount to sorcery. Movie magic!

The 1976 remake, while benefitting from modern advancements in practical special-effects and compositing techniques, fails to capture the same sense of wonder as the original. Much effort seems to have gone into making Kong more convincing to modern audiences, but the end result feels rather stiff, in my opinion. Furthermore, the film utterly fails in its portrayal of Skull Island. The reason for that can be summed up with just one name. Gustave Doré. You see, one of the things I loved the most about the original King Kong was the visual aesthetic of Kong's home, Skull Island. The shots of the island's jungles are multilayered and convey a real sense of depth to them, adding immensely to the film's visual charm. These jungle shots, or at least the ones handled by O'Brien, were actually inspired by the wood engravings of Gustave Doré, which convey a similar sense of depth. To create this effect in the film, the jungle shots are comprised of multiple layers of matte-painted glass, with miniature props and foliage placed in between. O'Brien tasked his artists, Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabbe, with imitating the style of Doré and recreating it on the layered sheets of glass. The use of atmospheric perspective, in both Doré's art and the jungle shots that were done by O'Brien and his team, imbues them with an almost otherworldly quality which I've always been quite enamored of. It is these layered jungle shots, composited together with Kong and various stop-motion dinosaurs, that leave me awestruck every time I watch this nearly century-old film. Contrast this with the depiction of Skull Island in the '76 remake, which lacks that same otherworldly aesthetic, opting instead for a more naturalistic look. It's also woefully lacking in dinosaurs. Thus, for me, the Doré-inspired jungle shots of the original Skull Island will always be far superior in their capacity to evoke a sense of wonder and truly transport me to another world. Movie magic!

And, as truly revolutionary and awe-inspiring as O'Brien's effects work is, it's still just one of many components that make this a true masterpiece. I mean, no amount of incredible effects shots, alone, would produce an end result so magnificent. Some attention must be given to the iconic score, composed by Max Steiner, which was every bit as groundbreaking as O'Brien's special effects. The first true film score, as we know them today. A non-diegetic score that parallels the action on screen, enhancing the emotional impact and heightening the overall experience. In addition to the orchestral score, the equally innovative sound design of Murray Spivack helped to bring Kong to life in a more convincing fashion. O'Brien made Kong move, Spivack made him roar, and Steiner made him feel larger than life. Together they created a living being from the stuff of imagination. Movie magic!

Kong truly is the Eighth Wonder of the World and this is, and always will be, a timeless masterpiece. From the moment the glamorous Fay Wray is abducted by Kong, right up till the end credits roll, I sit transfixed and utterly amazed every time I watch this. It's a film for which my appreciation only deepens with each subsequent viewing. A film I could watch back to back endlessly. And I truly pity those who can't see it the way I do. Who dismiss it as a tired and 'problematic' relic from a bygone era. I, on the other hand, will always happily bask in the warm glow of true movie magic.

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