- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

Director Peter Jackson points to 1933’s “King Kong” as the reason he first picked up a film camera. It’s a sweet story, made all the richer by his Oscar coronation for 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

That doesn’t mean moviegoers want to shell out $10 to see Mr. Jackson revisit a childhood muse.

The new “King Kong,” a deliriously entertaining update on the girl-meets-ape, ape-goes-gaga-over-girl story, wowed most critics and seemed a surefire bet to lead the box office into the new year.

Some whispered that the all-time box-office champ, 1997’s “Titanic,” could be dethroned by the overgrown ape.

Yet so far, the initial tally has been modest at best. The film raked in just $10 million on opening night and $66.2 million in its first extended weekend — “Kong” opened on a Wednesday.

That’s great for most films, but not for a $200 million-plus feature with the kind of hype that makes studios drool.

Mr. Jackson did his part. Not only did he create a compelling film bursting with adventure and pathos, he kept a running online diary at www.kongisking.net to keep fans in the loop.

So what went wrong?

A few negative reviews slipped through the adulation, accurately citing the film’s laborious first act and prolonged battle scenes. Newsday columnist James Pinkerton wondered in print about the film’s racial subtext — white men drag ape off island in chains to perform at their leisure — but any racial backlash was relegated to the opinion pages.

A more likely culprit is the film’s running time. It checks in at 187 minutes, which even by epic standards requires plenty of patience. Also, none of the film’s stars is known for seat-filling powers. Heroine Naomi Watts is still too fresh a face to some, and Adrien Brody’s Oscar win for “The Piano” earned him the respect of his peers but not A-list acclaim.

Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com), says the film “has yet to recover from the less-than-expected opening numbers.”

In fact, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” made just $300,000 less than “Kong” on Tuesday.

“A lot of the sky-high expectations were wishful thinking or possible rival studios inflating expectations,” Mr. Gray says. “The property carries baggage … people knowing the story or having misconceptions of the story.”

Word of mouth still may soothe the savage beast — the film earned an A-minus in initial exit polling, Mr. Gray says.

Of course, “Chronicles” earned an A-plus in the same polling system.

Plus, the film is the prototypical roller-coaster ride we have all come to expect from Hollywood.

“It’s not over yet,” Mr. Gray says. “It has a chance of reigning over the holidays and doing over 200 million.”

Perhaps we expected too much from the film, a can-you-top-this attitude that permeates Hollywood’s opening-weekend box-office obsession.

Even a 25-foot ape can’t climb those king-size expectations.



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