Regardless how good or bad either iteration actually is, it feels somewhat tragic whenever I know a modern remake better than the classic movie that inspired it. For example, George Romero's 'Dawn of the Dead' is indisputably one of my all-time favorite horror films, and yet when I think of the title, I'm often immediately reminded of that incredible opening sequence in Zack Snyder's version. Similarly, it was near impossible to watch more than a few minutes of Matt Reeves' 'Let Me In' without being distracted by the way the same scene or moment was captured in 'Let the Right One In.'
Given the fact that Peter Jackson's movie came out only five years ago and Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper's was released in 1933, the original 'King Kong' faces an uphill battle for recognition, no matter how beloved or celebrated it is by cinephiles. But the real question is, how well does the film hold up, some 77 years later? Warner Home Video's glorious new Blu-ray, thankfully, ensures that the presentation of Schoedsack and Cooper's film is top-notch; but does that stop-motion monkey stand on his own, or suffer from being an outdated ape in a world that has evolved?
The Facts: 'King Kong' opened in New York City on March 2, 1933, and was immediately met with positive reviews. It eventually earned approximately $2 million at the box office, and became a standard-bearer for the then-emerging practice of stop-motion animation. Although no awards existed at the time to honor technicians in areas of special effects, the film as a whole was chosen to be added to the National Film Registry in 1991. Meanwhile, 'King Kong' maintains a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: In terms of sheer adventure and excitement, the original 'King Kong' is virtually peerless. Its story is not merely visceral action, it's evocative, powerful drama: a filmmaker recruits a naïve young actress to be in his mysterious new project, where she not only falls in love with a man, but is fallen in love with – with truly disastrous results – by a giant ape. And the execution is a technical marvel, structural triumph and emotional powerhouse all rolled into one.
In particular, the escalation of suspense is simply brilliant: in one sequence, the search party that pursues Kong is attacked while crossing a lagoon on a makeshift raft. As the survivors flee in different directions, a serpentlike monster chases them down, and eventually, straight towards Kong, who has no compunctions about retaliating against them as well. While they cling for life on a fallen tree that he's shaking, only John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) safely escapes to a ledge just out of harms way. After Kong dispatches the rest of his pursuers, he sort of playfully tries to take care of Driscoll, but just as Kong begins to give up, a lizard-like creature climbs up a vine and towards the beleaguered man's refuge from attack above.
All of this may seem familiar to contemporary moviegoers, who would be disappointed if there weren't some kind of constant threat or danger, but this was quite frankly pioneering for the time, and best of all, it remains as nail-biting now as it did then. And most excitingly, the suspense continues to build even when there isn't that immediate peril; an early shot of the ship navigating through heavy fog is as ominous as it is beautiful, and the sight of Kong in chains in front of a capacity crowd augurs terrible, and terribly exciting things.
Finally, I truly believe that the special effects are every bit as effective and believable now as they were then. No one believed that Kong was real in 1933 when stop-motion was still in its infancy, but the character is created so believably and with such personality that it's impossible not to see him as a compelling and sympathetic figure. Willis O'Brien injects all of the beasts with a real weight and power, and then seamlessly merges them with live-action footage that continues to surprise at its effectiveness today, not merely constructing a reality on film but making us believe in it, and most of all, care.
What Doesn't Work: Although the screenplay does characters like Denham no favors in terms of likeability (albeit filtered through a respectable sort of rugged masculinity), there are several secondary characters that are conceived according to the preconceptions and prejudices of the time, and as a result feel somewhat offensive. In particular, Charlie, the Chinese cook is a stereotype at best, saying things like "crazy black man been here" in stilted English, and reinforcing the one-dimensional depiction of Asians on film at the time.
But while the natives on Skull Island are oversimplified stereotypes themselves, there's at least a half-hearted defense that can be mounted that their portrayal isn't meant to directly represent any specific ethnic group, but stand in for generic "savages" from lands that in 1933 were still very much foreign. And finally, the film's chauvinist "girls can't do boy stuff" mentality is no doubt problematic to contemporary audiences as well.
What's The Verdict: 'King Kong' doesn't merely hold up; it is a brilliant achievement that is as entertaining and artistically impressive as the day it was released – if not more so now. Watching it today I am constantly surprised not just how good its special effects continue to look, particularly the way it combines stop-motion and live-action in the same frame with considerable degrees of dimensionality into the frame, but how involved I become in its story, and how much I care for Kong by the end of the movie. Although Jackson's film admittedly offers a more balanced and beautiful relationship directly between the beast and his beauty, Cooper and Schoedsack construct a brilliant metaphor for technology's encroachment on the natural world, and manage to do so while constructing a rousing adventure at the same time.