Will Kong steal the lion’s share?
EMMA LEE Christmas has come early for movie fans with two of this year’s biggest blockbusters hitting the big screen. Emma Lee asks whether King Kong will reign supreme at the box office – or will the Chronicles of Narnia get the lion’s share of the takings?
Take a much-loved British fantasy novel. stir in tens of millions of dollars, add a generous handful of famous names and sprinkle liberally with some dazzling computer special-effects. And, hey presto, you've conjured yourself up a box office smash.
Well, it certainly worked for Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.
This Christmas, Disney hopes it has hit upon a Potter-style money-spinning franchise of its own with a big-screen adaptation of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - the first book in the much-loved Chronicles of Narnia series by CS Lewis.
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And like repeats of Morecambe and Wise on TV, a blockbuster directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson hitting the multiplexes is almost turning into a Christmas tradition.
Having completed the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's now remade the iconic film which inspired him to become a film-maker - King Kong.
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Could Narnia be the new Middle-Earth? Will King Kong be a monster hit?
University of East Anglia senior film studies lecturer Peter Kramer says Christmas is becoming an increasingly important time for the Hollywood movie studios.
“Before summer became the big time for releasing the blockbusters, Christmas was the big release period,” he says. “The summer big release period for Hollywood's big productions started with Jaws in 1975, followed by Star Wars.”
Most of the so-called blockbusters, usually high-action special-effects extravaganzas, are aimed at families, which is why they tend to be released during school summer holidays and at Christmas.
“There have always been family-oriented films released at Christmas - for example Home Alone, which became a huge hit,” he says. “But I think that the studios are becoming more focused on Christmas as a key release time.
“If a studio has a film which it hopes might win an Oscar it is an important time because they will still be fresh in the minds of the academy voters.”
In the UK, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will have a nostalgic “kidult” appeal. Namely, the grown-ups who fondly remember reading the book as children and then had to climb into their own wardrobes like Lucy, Susan, Edmund and Peter, hoping that it might just be a secret entrance to another world.
And as the success of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy films has shown, magic and mythical creatures have a catnip-like appeal to children.
As well as its young cast, the film features Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Shameless star James McAvoy as Mr Tumnus the faun, with Liam Neeson providing the voice of Aslan the lion. Shrek director Andrew Adamson is at the helm.
Its release is accompanied by a high-profile marketing campaign with numerous tie-ins, including one with McDonalds, books and toys.
It has been co-financed by Walden Media, a production company owned by Christian financier Philip Anschutz. Disney reportedly hopes that Lewis's religious allegories and the parallels between the characters in the story and the Bible will appeal to the Christian market.
Mr Kramer says: “Hollywood has avoided Christian films, but then the Passion of the Christ, which was funded by Mel Gibson, points the way towards much more mainstream Christian blockbusters. But it remains to be seen whether the Christian dimension is in the foreground or not.”
While The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be aimed at families, Mr Kramer thinks King Kong could cash in more on the recognition of the director's name.
“Peter Jackson's name is very prominent in the advertising. Except for maybe Steven Spielberg, people going to the movies generally don't care who the director is. But they are banking on the fact that people have got into the habit of watching movies directed by Peter Jackson in the run-up to Christmas.
“Peter Jackson is an interesting case study. He started as a director of horror movies, which were very limited in their appeal - their audience was generally young males. His career took him into quality independent movies like Heavenly Creatures.
“He didn't have a track record as a blockbuster director - there was no sense that this man could control one of the most expensive film projects of all time. But since it worked so well he can do whatever he likes - so far he's decided to continue in big classic adventures,” he says.
Jackson's three-hour epic version of the story - first made in 1933 starring Fay Wray and then again in the '70s - is said to have cost more than £100m to bring to the big screen.
Naomi Watts, whose mother Miv lives in North Norfolk, stars as the film's heroine, actress Ann Darrow. In one of the most famous movie sequences of all time, she ends up clutched in Kong's fist as he perches at the top of the Empire State Building as planes buzz round and shoot at him.
School of Rock star Jack Black plays film-maker Carl Denham and Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for his role in the Pianist, is Jack Driscoll.
Jackson is said to have made his first version of the movie when he was just 13, using a cardboard model of the Empire State Building and a Super 8 camera.
Speaking about the film recently he said: “I believed that to see this wonderful movie made with the technology we have today would be a really amazing thing. I want the film to do to audiences today what it did to me when I was nine years old watching the original.”
Mr Kramer says: “King Kong is one of the all-time classics.
“The '30s version is the one that most people know - even if they haven't actually seen it they are aware of it. It has a status within popular culture. It is an interesting choice. But then King Kong is a classic adventure icon.”
Mr Kramer notes that Jackson's version contains more dinosaurs than the original, and wonders if the “Jurassic Park effect” could be behind it.
“Jurassic Park was the biggest horror adventure movie of recent decades. Dinosaurs are very popular with children - my sense is that they have added them to make it an adventure for the whole family,” he says.
No matter how much money you throw at a film and how many merchandise tie-in deals you sign, as the word-of-mouth success of the documentary March of the Penguins in America shows, you can never predict which films will be a hit and which will miss.
The movie, which opened in the UK last week, follows a flock of emperor penguins in Antarctica.
As Mr Kramer says: “A lot of a film's success depends on what the people who go to the movies on its first weekend think of it and what they say to their family and friends. Negative word-of-mouth spreads very quickly.”
t Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and March of the Penguins are showing now. King Kong is out Thursday, December 15.