“KING KONG,” says special effects genius Greg Nicotero in Kong: Long Live the King, “is a sadly and horribly misunderstood lovesick gorilla.” Throughout this short, lightweight documentary, that’s a running theme: love and sympathy for history’s greatest movie monster.
For better and worse, Long Live the King is aimed directly at Kong superfans, paying tribute to everything from the 1933 original to the burned-down ride at Universal Studios. The doc is filled with a lot of affable dudes (and they are, almost entirely, dudes) fawning over Kong and Fay Wray in equal measure: There’s Gremlins director Joe Dante, effects masters Tom Woodruff Jr. and Chris Walas, comedian Dana Gould, and actor Doug Jones, who’s played enough monsters to have a pretty great perspective on why Kong’s so special. (Also onboard: Author Mark F. Berry, whose straight-faced credit as a “Kong historian” is the greatest job title in the world.)
Long Live the King’s best moments are those that contextualize King Kong in cinema and effects history. Next month, Kong will be reincarnated again in Kong: Skull Island, where he’ll be a CGI menace towering above Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. For Long Live the King’s fanboys, though, much of his appeal comes from the fact that in 1933, he was a relatively tiny puppet, his plane-smashings and tyrannosaur-slayings animated frame by frame. “The effects are not an issue at all,” says Walas, the guy behind Jeff Goldblum’s transformation in The Fly and the melting heads of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and who, along with Long Live the King co-director Frank Dietz, will be in attendance at the Hollywood screening). “It goes back to [that] Siskel and Ebert statement where, yeah, stop motion looks fake but feels real, and CGI looks real but feels fake.”
For all of Long Live the King’s insights, there’s a richer documentary here that could’ve been. Issues like King Kong’s racial and gender overtones are never addressed—frustratingly, Long Live the King avoids any of the more challenging elements that come with the aging of pop culture icons. Maybe if Kong sticks around for another 84 years, we’ll get a documentary that digs a little deeper.