The morning dawn peeking over the horizon in 1930s New York City. All seemed serene, except for the drone of fighter planes circling ahead. The tallest skyscraper in the world, the Empire State Building, just had an unexpected visitor. A monstrous gorilla standing atop its spire, with a screaming blonde in hand, and the other, defending itself and swatting the fighter planes down like flies.

There are only a handful of films with classic, iconic scenes that can survive the annals of time. When you think of murder, the shower scene in Psycho comes automatically to mind. You can think of many more, and when it comes to Monster movies, King Kong isn’t far behind.

Although it’s been more than 70 years, but the scene described above ranks as #35 in Variety Magazine’s top 100 most gorgeous iconic moments in cinema. Recently, Kong itself ranked as #1 in Empire’s Top 10 Supermonsters too (Godzilla ranks only #3, as a comparison).

So let’s journey into the celluloid jungle and discover what makes Kong the King tick.

The Original Monkey

Created by English writer Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper, Kong was brought to the big screen for the first time in 1933. The premise is already familiar to all: A group of filmmakers journey to a strange mysterious island known as Skull Island to make their movie, chanced upon the inhabitants and various gigantic monsters, but none other more terrifying, and appealing as Kong. Falling in love with the actress, Kong gets captured and brought back to New York City to be billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, only to break free from captivity, rampaging through the Big Apple before culminating in the final showdown leading to its iconic status.

It’s a simple story, with a beautiful girl, a dashing guy, and a monstrosity of a gorilla that stood 40 feet tall. It’s also billed for its superb stop-motion animation sequence at that time for Kong, and raked in almost US$2 million (those days) in its release.

A Bunch of Bananas

Given the success of any film, the business people at the studios will naturally think up of sequels and related follow ups to ape (pardon the pun) the original. While King Kong was credited with saving (the now defunct) movie studio RKO from bankruptcy, the sequels, re-makes and other adaptations failed to garner as much interest, nor could they fill the huge footprint left behind by Kong.

RKO had Son of Kong made in the same year, but with only the character Carl Denham returning from the original, and another actress Helen Mack playing a new screaming blonde in the Kong mythos.

Merian C. Cooper himself came up with another gorilla story called Mighty Joe Young in 1949, which was remade by Disney in 1998 starring Charlize Theron. Comparing rampaging antics, Joe seemed to be a more benign ape standing at 15 feet tall, much smaller in size than its cinematic cousin is.

The swinging 60s saw a rolling good time for our favourite gorilla, where it had an animated series made in 1966. However, it is during this era that the Japanese jumped onto the Kong bandwagon, putting its expertise in model making, and “men in rubber suits” to good use. Japan already had its own classic monster Godzilla to terrorize miniature Tokyo, and if that wasn’t enough, they had thrown Kong into the mix to have both monsters go head to head with each other.

While King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962) is considerably dated in today’s standards – the cheesy acting, and the obvious human-in-a-suit Kong, it is testament that Kong had indeed a wider audience. To be ranked alongside cult favourite Godzilla in a Japanese movie, is a nod of approval from the land of the rising sun. But Kong didn’t have it easy being the unwitting protector of Japan from Godzilla, there are cringe-worthy moments where you had Kong scratching its head in bewilderment, and having its rear kicked from the powerful lizard.

The Japanese did have another sequel made called King Kong Escapes (1967), but it came with an absurd mechanical Kong. There was also a 3D 36 feet gorilla movie called APE (1976). If anything, these movies hinted at a need to bring Kong back to its roots, having been corrupted by unrelated remakes.

So in 1976, there was actually a movie that brought Kong back to its source material. Sort of. Titled King Kong (1976), this movie took certain liberties in updating the movie for the modern day audience. Starring Jeff Bridges and introducing a nubile Jessica Lange, this movie had the screen filmmakers become oil explorers, and bringing the action closer to Singapore as well. Electronics and puppetry replaced Stop-Motion Kong, and since the Empire State Building no longer was the tallest skyscraper in 1970s New York City, The World Trade Center Twin Towers were used for the climatic (well, not quite) battle between Kong and helicopters.

While the movie was a critical flop, it managed a worldwide gross of US$80 million. And with box office success comes a sequel titled King Kong Lives (1986) starring the beautiful Linda Hamilton 10 years later, where it was revealed that Kong did not die as initially thought. Needless to say, in life imitating art, there isn’t a good ending if you exploit Kong, and it turned out to be a flop given its weak story.

Does Size Matter?

With monster movies, it’s fun to have the big monster rampaging and ravaging everything in sight, the more the merrier. We can’t deny the obsession with huge movie monsters, and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) proved that point with making a villain out of the T-Rex.

But it always doesn’t mean that bigger is always necessarily better.

Hollywood’s take on Godzilla (1998), by the Emmerich-Devlin team, stumbled in its own hype. The marketing folks went all out with building expectations to enormous levels, but when it finally delivered, audiences rejected the remade Godzilla, and it didn’t make an impact like it was supposed to. Not that it wasn’t an enjoyable popcorn movie, but it was lacking something that made it distinctly, Godzilla.

The Kong Formula

Similarly, for Kong, size mattered, otherwise you wouldn’t have at least a 40 feet giant gorilla, scaling what was the largest tower of the time. This makes for a good action adventure movie, with a mysterious island, inhabitants other island creatures, and the charm of New York City.

What probably is the X-factor for Kong, aside from its obvious size, is probably the warped romance between Beauty and the Beast. There is always that blonde in skimpy clothes that our favourite gorilla lusts after, from Faye Wray, to Jessica Lange, and soon, Naomi Watts. Our gorilla knows its babes, and great woe is the man who stands in its path. While Kong is ferocious towards its enemies, it always had this soft spot for its girl, who will bring about his downfall as it’s destined to be.

The WETA Treatment

When it comes to size and epics, none other in recent Hollywood history can rival that of Peter Jackson and his production crew. They have enjoyed the fruits of their labour with the success of the big-budgeted Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now have undertaken the task of bringing back Kong to its full glory, by sticking closely to the original.

The skeptics are already out in discounting the effort – besides snazzy digital effects, what else is there to add to the story that many already know? Jackson has promised a deeper look into the psyche of Kong, which probably added to both its budget and running time to almost 3 hours.

But from what the trailers have demonstrated, audiences are generally waiting for his remake version with bated breaths. Jackson seemed to have learnt a lesson from Emmerich-Devlin, and doesn’t keep Kong under a secret veil. This has been met with general approvals on how Kong looked liked, and behaved. From the action sequences on Skull Island to the Big Apple, Kong has never looked more menacing, courtesy of Andy Serkis’ injection of his incredibly talented abilities. By setting it back in the 30s rather than Today, Jackson has reinforced his point of keeping true to the original, having this epic set where it should belong, unlike all the other wannabe remakes.

So come 14 December 2005, Singapore will experience King Kong on its shores. Let’s cross our fingers that Kong will be back in a manner befitting a King, roaring mightily atop the Empire State Building once more.

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Written by Stefan Shih | Layout by Linus Tee | Image courtesy from UIP

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