10 March 2017

Kong is King: Apes and Other Jungle Shenanigans

There aren't a lot of cinematic icons bigger than King Kong, and today marks the eighth time the big lug, the Grape Ape come to life if you will, hits the big screen. Now, I'm sure you think that's like five times too many, but I jest you not. We talk a lot about pop culture sustainability here at Norwegian Morning Wood, and there's not much of a better case than Kong.

Don't talk back.
The first film, dropping in 1933 was just so huge. It was spectacle before spectacle was a thing. The effects were masterful at the time, and the adventure crossed pulp roots with big screen engrossment. Soon Son of Kong (1933) followed, and by soon I meant nine months later. I mostly know that exists due to a Futurama joke. Then nothing happened for a while. For some reason Toho in Japan wanted in on the action for their third Godzilla movie, even though the role of Godzilla antagonist was clearly meant for Frankenstein, which makes far less sense. King Kong shouldn't have electricity powers you say, well, why the hell should Frankenstein for that matter?!

We got King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967) - where the ape fights the impeccable Mechani-Kong. I remember being really excited to finally watch King Kong vs. Godzilla as a kid, because obviously, watching these two titans of cinema go at must be awesome, right? It's a crossover movie fifty years before crossover movies were de rigueur in Hollywood! And forty years before Freddy vs. Jason (2003). But that movie blew chunks hard, even for a poorly dubbed Blockbuster video Godzilla film. It had the monsters but lacked the mash.

Next in the 70s we got the first redux of the classic Blonde meets Ape story, King Kong (1976). This installment is strangely forgotten today, although it was pretty popular at the time. I wonder if that has anything to do with the ape climbing the Twin Towers rather than the Empire State Building. It even won the Academy Award for best visual effects, along with nominations in cinematography and sound. It is most notable today for starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Its sequel, that came out ten years later, King Kong Lives (1986) was basically universally hated and dismissed, despite starring Linda Hamilton fresh off The Terminator (1984).

Finally, our last outing with the ape has been Pete Jackson's King Kong (2005), which is a film that, despite its faults, I'm a big fan of. There is a tremendous amount of melodrama, hundreds of minutes of superfluous scenes, and the non-Naomi Watts casting really misses the mark. Still, it's chock full of iconic scenes that are all given proper weight and awe, along with competent action cinematography, a distinctive take on the Ape (really making him an Ape), and who can forget Bruce Baxter using a comb as a moustache or swinging on vines shooting bugs. I can't. I can't. I still hate the idiotic Jamie Bell side plot that goes no where and is horribly distracting. There's some rough edges for sure, but what are you to expect with the truest "Kong really wants to fuck this blonde chick" version of this story that we're going to get? The natives are pretty bad in this one, too. As part of that pair with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) setting the standard in the mid-2000s. You know, back when people were just savages.

At any rate, here we are at Legendary's completely not-forced at all second installment in their Shared Giant Monsters Universe, KONG: Skull Island (2017). This is promising in that it doesn't seem to resemble an 84-year old story regurgitated for the fourth time, but rather a different take - different people surveying the island, different time period (ironically or not echoing the King Kong '76 era), and what looks like some drastically different characters, goals, motivations, and monsters. It's rad, yo!

So what is our critical, commercial, and cultural potential? Well, critically the film does not appear to be doing well. Consensus is that it's pretty awful, although fully into itself being an expensive giant monster B-movie, which isn't really a bad thing at all. Also apparently John C. Reilly is a dream. Of course he is. It doesn't seem like this film was out to win any favors from critics, but as long as it's fine with that and sets out to do what it is meant to do, which is feature a bunch of wacky giant shit crash into and eat each other, than it'll be just fine.

Commercially the way is paved better than it would seem. Logan (2017) did well, but not astoundingly so, and I am not feeling great about Power Rangers (2017). KONG is what a March Halfbuster is meant to be - cheap schlocky primer fun for the Summer Season. I think its ad campaign has also been spectacular, even if its latest trailer seems like a cheap way to imitate Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Suicide Squad (2016). To be fair, not even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) could escape from the trailer shadow of its predecessor. Still, little of this matters since the trailer is fun, violent, and adventuresome. That's all you need, baby. Word of mouth and buzz is pretty high - after the road to bummerville with Logan this is a good jolt in a 2017 that hasn't had many yet.

And finally, we get back to where we started: How will this land culturally? King Kong '05 has lasted in the public consciousness for a while, although that might be more in my mind than the populace at large. '76 has largely vanished, so we're really just left with the incredibly long shadow from '33. That's the toughest thing to get over, and diversifying what Skull Island is the way to do it. Debuting away from the crowd can help, too, along with just being a fun, action filled adventure with great, memorable characters. Actually, that's how all movies can have cultural impact. I have no idea how the Legendary Mega Monster Universe will fare, but maybe in ten years we'll think of this as Legendary's Iron Man (2008, tho to be more precise it would be their Incredible Hulk [2008]). That's not great.

I don't totally care about Beauty and the Beast (2017) dropping next weekend, clearly, but I might preview it. What are you going to see this March?

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