I can think of not one single reason to hold back: the first King Kong, from 1933, is probably the most perfect movie ever made by a Hollywood studio in what we would call, I guess, the "popcorn movie tradition" - that is to say, big-budget adventure movies with rip-roaring special effects, or some other form of over-the-top indulgent spectacle. Since this is, maybe, the single thing that Hollywood is best at doing compared to all the other filmmaking industries in the world, I have maybe just gone ahead and called King Kong the ideal Hollywood movie of all time. And you know, I'm not going argue against that...

The film represents one of the handful of true great leaps forward in cinema history. Formally speaking, King Kong invented nothing: the essential piece of technology, stop-motion animation, was well over twenty years old by the time effects technician Willis O'Brien started making his 18-inch-tall gorilla puppet (well over thirty years, in fact: the first stop-motion animated film is generally held to be The Humpty Dumpty Circus from 1897, now lost), and O'Brien himself had already wowed the world with stop-motion dinosaurs in 1925's The Lost World, eight years prior to King Kong. Matte paintings dated back to the first decade of the century as well, and the only relatively new technique on display was rear projection, unknown until the late 1920s, but certainly a well-explored technique by 1933. Mind you, the film refined a great deal, particularly in the field of rear-projection, and its use of optical printers in compositing shots together was I believe unprecedented in feature film production.

Either way, King Kong is something undeniably special in the annals of effects-driven films. All of these techniques may well have existed prior to this film's premiere, but arguably not a single one of them had been achieved with such exquisite perfection. Think, if you will, upon the scene where Kong is attempting to shake his pursuers off the dead tree serving as a bridge across the ravine - wait, do I need to talk about the plot of King Kong at all? Well, for right now, "25-foot-tall gorilla on a South Pacific island grabs a blonde and carriers her into the jungle interior, pursued by the crew of her ship including her love interest" is sufficient. So you have this shot, where the stop-motion Kong, the humans giving chase, and a solitary human down below in a small crag in the cliff face all co-exist, in a faultless composite shot that represents a level of ambition that simply nobody in the whole world was playing around with by 1933. Or, for that matter, 1963. You really do have to fast-forward as far as the 1980s and the post-Star Wars era of practical effects houses like Industrial Light and Magic to find anything that can actually better that shot from King Kong, or a great many other shots (though this is almost certainly the single most sophisticated and challenging set-up in the film), and even here in the 2010s and the age of digital effects in everything from major studio tentpoles that cost half a billion dollars down to gritty realist indie films, you can still find composite shots that look worse than what O'Brien and his team were able to whip up an entire human lifetime ago.

Are there shortcomings? Of course. The rear-projection, often, is not quite ready for its close-up: one shot of the human characters walking by a sea monster in a lake looks out-and-out shitty, and there are more than a handful of moments that only the most charitable viewer could find believable. But still, this is a damn miracle, and all the more so since it postpones any really over-the-top ambitious effects work for most of the first hour of a film that, in the restored version completed in 2004, comes in at 104 minutes (there are some breathtakingly beautiful matte paintings by this point, but those are a relatively "invisible" effect). I think this is more or less exactly the point, in fact: by the time O'Brien busts out the big guns, King Kong has in theory already sucked us in with its story and characters, its setting, and it hugely seductive Maz Steiner score, one of the earliest examples of non-diegetic, motif-driven orchestral music in the history of the sound film.

Anyway, all this talk of spectacle and elaborate technical miracles is one thing; the reason King Kong became a giant hit and the cornerstone of an entire genre isn't really this or that little fiddly bit of behind-the-scenes wizardry, it's Kong himself. Look, my heart belongs to Ray Harryhausen, O'Brien's mentee, and if you asked me to name the film with the most beautiful, accomplished, thriller stop-motion effects, I'll have replied "Jason and the Argonauts" before you've even finished asking the question. But Kong is the best stop-motion character of all time - we might as well go ahead and call him the best character-who-is-a-special-effect, since in the one and a quarter centuries that filmmaking has existed, only Gollum in 2002's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers has mounted even a modest challenge for that title. This needs to be qualified a little bit: Kong doesn't look like a gorilla much at all, and he doesn't even particularly look like a living animal (16 years later, O'Brien would improve on both fronts with the title character of Mighty Joe Young, made with the assistance of the young Harryhausen). He looks pretty much exactly like an animator's puppet covered with black rabbit fur and a face made of rubber, if we're going to be honest with ourselves.

But this is very much not the the point, because even more than he looks like this, he looks like himself - Kong is, simply put, a great piece of dialogue-free acting and character building, and even he he never once feels remotely "realistic", who gives a fuck? He feels real, and that counts for a great deal more than realism ever could. We know exactly what Kong is thinking, and feeling; we perceive his fascination with the little human figure he ends up playing with, and we grasp his protectiveness towards here as well as his petulant, immature rage when he can't have her. When Kong hurts, the spasms of his body and the pain on his face register impeccably. It is among the great triumphs in all of animation, all the more so since the script for King Kong requires only that he be a big, menacing, dumb threat. A threat he is, but Kong has a soul - as big a soul as any monster in any movie ever really.

I think no-one will disagree that Kong is the main attraction of King Kong, though going from there to the suggestion that the rest of the film is stilted crap, as you'll sometimes find even very appreciative fans to, seems a little uncharitable to me. The human element is, yes, rather lacking: Bruce Cabot, as the romantic lead John Driscoll, is an utter block of wood about whom I can think of not a single genuinely nice thing to say, and Robert Armstrong's showman/huckster Carl Denham lacks the fleetness of foot and tongue that he really ought to have (I always find myself wishing that he was more of a transplant from a screwball comedy than comes across). Fay Wray is pretty great, with screen presence to spare, and a clear sense that her character Ann Darrow has a street-smart survival instinct honed in a life of dodging assholes in New York, but right about the time she's snatched off the deck of the Venture, the character ceases to be anything but a vessel for panicked screams and terrified reaction shots. Both of which Wray is extremely good at providing, but there's just not that much there.

Weirdly, none of this has ever bothered me at all. King Kong isn't really a character story - not even about Kong himself, when you get right down to it. It's a purefied adventure story, one ever matched by Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is anyway a knowing throwback. King Kong is the real deal, a journey to the mist-covered, uncharted world of the exotic South Seas, back when the South Seas were still reasonably exotic and uncharted, at least for Americans. King Kong is so much a product of the 1930s in every detail to, starting from its gorgeous Art Deco opening credits and spinning through its irreducibly Depression-era tale of snazzy showmen and penniless dames with tough-but-romantic souls and the all-encompassing awe at The Movies as the great mass medium. And that '30s-ness sweeps me up along with it.

It is instructive to keep in mind that the directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, got their start making ethnographic documentaries, notably Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, films that blurred journalistic reportage with boggle-eyed "look at these strange tribal people!" awe with a sensible, earnest desire to present the lives of their subjects as ordinary humans. King Kong, being a work of fiction, lacks some of those film's nuance - one can hunt for days and days to find an argument that its depiction of the islanders somehow isn't alarmist and racist, and never find one - but it perfectly captures their sense of desperate, passionate interest in seeing the whole world and learning all there is about it. Denham, undoubtedly, has plenty of Cooper in his DNA, and that woozy sense of cinema as the wonderful tool for showing off all the splendor the world can provide pervades King Kong. Even if, in this case, that splendor was something the world couldn't provide. The point remains: even before it gets "good", King Kong is saturated with the feeling that the planet is a really marvelous, big place, and if things are godawful in New York, maybe they're wonderful and exciting somewhere else. That kind of forcible, optimistic naïveté is of course wholly unrelated to any philosophy felt by actual humans in actual time of economic turmoil, but you can absolutely tell how much King Kong believes in it, and that marvelous, paradoxical combination of hard-boiled realism and "gee-whiz!" enthusiasm is pretty much the best thing I could ever want to get out a fluffy slice of escapist moviemaking.