Monday, November 30, 2015

AFI Top 100: #41 "King Kong"

The King of the Apes in King Kong (1933)

Nothing like a sci-fi monster movie screening coming out of the Halloween weekend (yes, we watched this a month ago, these reviews are starting to pile up). One of the oldest films in the AFI Top 100 (and likely the most prolific, soon to be upstaged by Star Wars), the original 1933 King Kong scores the #41 spot for its storytelling innovations and visionary creatures, bringing the King of the Apes to the masses for the first time. He has since been the subject of 7 films (including 2 remakes of the 1933 movie), with 2 more spin-offs planned, coming in 2017 and 2020. Needless to say, there is no end to the timeline of Kong—but it's the original that has captured audiences with its timeless execution and creativity.

The story begins as far away from Kong's jungle as humanly possible: in New York City. The Great Depression has hit hard, and young Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is struggling to find even her next meal. When she's caught stealing from a street vendor in desperation, it's movie director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) who comes to her rescue. Attracted to her beauty—and likely the fear in her eyes—he offers her the starring role in his upcoming picture; and they're shipping off to the shooting location in the morning. With nothing to lose, Ann hops on board the ship heading for Skull Island, an untamed rock shrouded in mystery.

The only woman braving the journey, she naively ignores the dangers that may lie ahead, despite her budding love interest, crew member John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), warning her around every turn. When the island is finally reached, it is only a matter of time before the film crew is rudely awakened to the realities of what the natives fear—a giant creature living beyond the towering walls—when Ann is taken by the beast, Kong, himself. It's up to Driscoll and Denham to venture into the wilderness to bring her back, not knowing the other prehistoric monsters they will run into along the way. Never-ending suspense and action leads to a then unexpected, and now infamous, climax that can only be described as iconic.

Unlike most monster movies, King Kong is unique in that the titular character doesn't actually appear until nearly halfway through the film. The build-up to his reveal is epic, told almost entirely through the set design that more than suggests his massive, terrifying size. When you see the giant, carved gate separating the native islanders from the wilderness... words just aren't needed. Everything these experts—filmmakers and scientists alike—thought they knew was about to be turned on its head the moment those doors opened. Really, the moment they arrived on Skull Island, which is a testament to the suspense built-up to that point. It's a genuinely thrilling and frightening prospect, one that delivers ten-fold, not only upon seeing Kong, but with the introduction of every other creature that rises up to challenge him.

If the film could be faulted for anything, it would be the acting, particularly from Fay Wray. Wray's acts like she's taking the parenthetical script directions a little too literally, externalizing every suggestion as an exaggerated projection. The range of reaction emotions and facial expressions she delivers (even when she's just listening to someone speak) is almost dizzying as she appears (shocked)(confused)(scared)—(joyful)... but hey, maybe it kinda works for a character that's supposed to be a desperate, novice actress? Arguably, you could say this was representative of the acting at the time, but it's mostly distracting since she's the only one doing it.

The only time it makes sense is when she's staring up into the eyes of Kong while clasped tightly in his hand the size of school bus. Those effects were spectacularly done, mixes of animatronics, clay-mation, and stop-motion, full scenes leveraging every one of those and more. It truly is the special effects that put this film is on the AFI Top 100 list. The set design is a close second, from the native village to the jungle terrain and the rocky peaks. King Kong has some of the best of these specialties to come out of 1930s cinema, without a doubt, so it's possible to overlook Wray chewing the scenery in the background, albeit not easily.

"'Twas beauty that killed the beast" is up there with the greatest closing lines in film history, and it's definitely generated its fair share of spoofs and homages. The plot is a structural wonder, one that on paper shouldn't have worked--but it does because of the terrible implications that litter the first half of the film. We anticipate Kong before he ever appears, which is almost as good as actually seeing him; thankfully, his reveal doesn't spoil the novelty of him. He's still as magnificent as the legend that preceded him.

This isn't a perfect film, by any means, but it indisputably wondrous. Even the moments that drag or feel repetitive (I mean, how many dinosaur stampedes can these people survive?), there are too many visual elements creating beauty on the screen. A classic for all time.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © RKO Radio Pictures]

Check back next time for #40 on the list, The Sound of Music — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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