King Kong has been remade and reimagined many times throughout the decades. It had a sequel made in the same year with Kong’s child, it was remade in 1976 and 2005, King Kong and Godzilla fought each other in 1962 and in 2021, and there was a pseudo sequel in 2017 that took place during the Vietnam War. This is a very odd film franchise. But why is the story of a giant ape so popular that we still make movies about it to this day? The short answer: it’s a fun and dramatic story that anyone can understand. The original movie has been engrained into popular culture and has persisted for decades. The simplicity of the film has inspired generations of film fans and filmmakers.
The movie is set during the Great Depression in New York City. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a director, is set to go to an ancient island to make a film. He comes across Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), an out-of-work actress, and hires her to be the star of his movie. On the ship Ann comes across First Mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and they fall in love with each other. When they get to the island, they come into contact with the natives who end up kidnapping Ann to sacrifice to their god, Kong. Sure enough, Kong shows up and takes Ann. Driscoll wants to go after Kong to save Ann, while Denham wants to go after Kong so he can capture him and show him off to the world. Either way, someone has to save Ann before the islands dinosaurs and monsters try to kill her. Or is she safer in Kong’s hands?
I doubt no one doesn’t know this story by now. But why is this story so popular to tell? Well, there are many reasons. For one, it’s a fun adventure movie that’s very unique. There had never been a film like this before. Most action/adventure films in the early days were westerns or stories based on biblical/historical events (see Cecil B. DeMille’s movies for that). This was the first mainstream movie to have giant monsters fighting, taking place in dangerous environments, and people getting eaten by said monsters. It created a surreal, but fun world that the characters inhabited. It’s an island of dinosaurs and giant apes which was crazy to think of back then. There’s also a sense of great danger as anyone could die at any moment. Several members of the crew are eaten by lake monsters or crushed by dinosaurs in very brutal ways. Even the fights between Kong and several dinosaurs are pretty violent as Kong rips open the mouth of a T-Rex to kill it. The action is quick, the fights are brutal, and the scenes can even be intense for our leading characters. You’re never really sure who will survive on this island.
What makes these creatures like Kong and the dinosaurs so fun to watch is how they were animated. Back in the 1930s there were no computers or CGI to make the monsters. So how they made the monsters move is through stop motion animation. This is when an animator creates a small puppet that has a metal skeleton that can move in any direction. The animator would take one photo of the puppet, move the puppet an inch, then take another picture. This would create the idea of motion for these puppets. This was a long and intensive process, but when it was done right it looked amazing for the time. This was the only way to make Kong and the other creatures move. And it’s really amazing to look at in a technical sense. You see how the animators spent so much time on the puppets to make them look as real as possible (for the time). Kong is especially well animated. You can see the effort being put into the fight scenes and even in smaller moments. When Driscoll stabs Kong in the hand, Kong recoils in pain and looks at his wound. There’s a lot of confusion and pain in his facial expressions that you don’t see even today with the help of computers. The puppets look fake today, but back then this was cutting edge technology like with Star Wars (1977) and Avatar (2009). The effects are still fun to look at because they add to the films bizarre tone. It makes you feel like a kid again playing with your toys and creating new worlds with your imagination.
But if the film relied on its special effects and world building alone then this story wouldn’t be so popular. The biggest thing that people remember about the movie is Kong himself. Kong is the reason why people love this film today. Hell, he could be considered the main character if it wasn’t for the humans. Kong is introduced as a mystery. People talk about him as if he were a legend and the natives of the island worship him. When we first see him, he looks big and mean as he carries Ann away. However, we see through his actions and facial expressions that he’s a good guy. He kills dinosaurs that try to hurt Ann and he tries to kill Driscoll and his men for getting too close. This is all because he has fallen in love with Ann, though Ann is not very fond of him. At the climax of the movie Kong is captured and taken back to New York to be put on display. This doesn’t go over so well as Kong breaks free and wreaks havoc across the city. The most famous image of the film is Kong climbing to the top of the newly built Empire State building with Ann while trying to fend off planes shooting at him. I won’t spoil what happens at the end for the people who haven’t seen it, but let’s just say that you’ll need some tissues handy.
Kong goes from being a savage animal, to becoming a sympathetic character. He’s the real star of the film as he has the most character development and even has an arc that’s completed. This is the real reason why King Kong is so fondly remembered and reinterpreted over the years as the movie creates a memorable character. Even if that character is a giant ape, he has a giant heart.