Saturday, January 11, 2014

Musing on King Kong

You know, my original plan was to review the 1933 King Kong. Then I reconsidered for one reason: too easy. It’s a great film. The characters are two-dimensional but never unlikable. The special effects are amazing. The direction, cinematography, and score make for a great film. The central idea is inspired. This movie changed the filmmaking medium forever, and I consider it the best-made film ever. Citizen Kane was just plain boring-it needed a giant gorilla fighting dinosaurs.

Speaking of dinosaurs, this is what we’ll be discussing: Why are there dinosaurs in King Kong and are they a good thing?  Let’s start with behind the scenes.  Following the success of 1925’s Lost World, Willis O’Brien brainstormed another prehistoric jungle epic. With his modelmaker Marcel Delgado, he created a lush jungle set and a host of prehistoric beasts-Stegosaurus, Pteranodon, Tyrannosaurus, Styracosaurus, Triceratops, Arsinoitherium and Brontosaurus. The project, called Creation, was never filmed but for a single sequence featuring a mother Triceratops attacking the killer of her child. However, as the Great Depression set in, RKO has their rising director Merian C Cooper go over their current projects. Cooper read through the script and dismissed the stock characters and meandering story, but was entranced by the special effects in the test sequence.
When Cooper added O’Brien to his giant gorilla project, "O’Bie" (as he was nicknamed) kept his dinosaurs. Cooper welcomed more opportunities for thrills, action, and had already planned for a live-action tussle between a gorilla and a Komodo dragon. After all, what’s a King without his subjects and conquests?  So that’s why we have Karl Denham losing his crew. Furthermore, they act as a plot device to threaten Anne Darrow so Kong can protect her.  And while Kong was clearly the star, the dinosaurs added spectacle and excitement

A quick, cheap sequel followed the film’s successful opening, featuring the Styracosaurus whose footage was cut from the original, and some completely new, mostly fictional animals made up for the film.   The Styracosaurus looks great, but that's because it was made and animated for Kong, but its scene was cut out. The new animals, however, are fairly shoddy and cheap-looking, showing that Delgado made them in a hurry. I do think that the other Skull Island denizens are essential and provide much-needed excitement in the film, but they're pale shadows of the previous dinosaurs.

Almost every Kong movie since has included dinosaurs. Toho made the dinosaur fight the main event for their Kong, replacing Skull Island’s dinosaurs for a giant octopus. But again, said dinosaur was Godzilla. Their second Kong movie, King Kong Escapes, had their title super-ape kill a menacing theropod named by the script and press as Gorosaurus to rescue his love interest. 

In Dino De Laurentiis's 1976 film and 1986 sequel, no dinosaurs are shown at all, the director and producer refusing to pay for the stop-motion effects. Instead of Kong saving Ann from a Tyrannosaur, he saves “Dwan” from a very fake looking snake, combining both the Tyrannosaur, the “Elasmosaur”, and Pterosaur fights into one.  The animated musical The Mighty Kong did feature cartoon dinosaurs, with a Triceratops replacing the original Stegosaurus, the requisite Tyrannosaurus, and Pterosaur attack. Said footage is even briefer and more primitive than the original’s dinosaur sequences, despite the animation allowing for more fantastic action.
Finally, the 2005 version took every dinosaur scene and ramped it up in scale.While, like the musical, the Stegosaurus is replaced by a ceratopsian, the other dinosaur sequences are far more elaborate.  Instead of a Brontosaurus attack on Denham’s crew, there is a dromeosaur attack, brontosaur stampede, and attack by a giant predatory fish. Instead of the Elasmosaurus and Tyrannosaurus in quick succession, Kong fights three giant tyrannosaurs in a long, elaborate scene. Instead of a single pterosaur distracting the gorilla for Ann to escape, it is a flock of giant flying predatory rodents. Indeed, featurettes for the 2005 version show that Jackson and his team had dinosaurs in mind the whole time. Jurassic Park might have influenced them, but it’s just as likely Jackson loved dinosaurs as much as he loved everything else in the original Kong.  Indeed, the second sequence shot for the film was the Kong fight with the tyrannosaurs.

Now, the question arises: Does King Kong need dinosaurs? Well, we’ve seen both approaches-most films with and two without. Those with dinosaurs have received better reviews, and have plots far more faithful to the original.  But why? Kong is the star attraction, and the dinosaurs are only for the Skull Island portion of the film. They’re really not essential to the story.  There are several books of essays on the film, and outside those on the special effects, none of them even mention the dinosaurs. So why?

I think it’s because people like dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are weird and big and scary, and while Kong is spectacular enough, they add a lot. If Kong isn’t going to menace Ann Darrow, then who is? Who does Kong fight? Without the dangers, it’s harder to prove Kong’s dedication and devotion to his captive. Without the dinosaurs, there are no action scenes in the picture until Kong rampages through the Skull Island village.  They add additional menace, thrills, and spectacle to an already strong film.  Simply put, you can’t make a King Kong movie without them. 
Simply put, dinosaurs are fun. The website TVtropes even has a page on media called “Everything’s better with dinosaurs”. We love dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs. You love dinosaurs.  And the only thing better than a giant gorilla is one fighting dinosaurs. So yeah, I think that the better question is “why not put dinosaurs in King Kong”? 

Citizen Kane needed a Gorgosaurus attack.

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