Loving a 30-foot Ape

With the roaring passion of Kong making screens quake, I find myself meditating on the great cinematic tradition of interspecies love affairs. The great films about man—or woman—and beast, locked together in love’s sweet embrace. I’m not talking about Lassie and the boy who pets him or Bobby Joe out back with a goat; I’m talking about grand amour that is capable of transcending such banal labels as Human Being and Basset Hound.

Shocking? Profane? Indecent? Gross? Interspecies love stories are grounded in a literary tradition at once vast and ancient, reaching back as far as the 2nd century myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which a maiden marries a hideous creature; Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that has the fairy queen making love to an ass; and, most appropriately, “Beauty and the Beast,” first published in France in the 18th century, but based on older folklore about girls wedding crocodiles, frogs, bears, monkeys, all kinds of inappropriate matches whose ugliness represents sexuality and the fear it incites in virginal maids. In each of these stories, one loving kiss (or lick on the face) from their wives magically turns the animals into nice, marriageable young men.

In Jean Cocteau’s haunting film version, “La Belle et La Bête” (1946), which inspired the later Disney film, Belle (Josette Day), a merchant’s daughter, is promised to a lonely, misunderstood beast whose furry face would make most maidens shriek. But Belle learns to love the kind-hearted beast and, for her ability to see beyond his appearance, is rewarded. Her affection breaks a wicked spell and transforms him into dreamy Jean Marais sans the werewolf-esque headgear he sports as La Bête.

In Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” the relationship between the terror of Skull Island and the comely actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) develops like many a love affair, with seduction rituals that seem all-too-familiar: He sweeps her off her feet (literally) and drags her back to his place. She’s hard-to-get, dashing off every time his back is turned. He sulks and beats his chest before chasing her down and, finding her in harm’s way, slays dinosaurs to save her. Impressed by his strength and battleground prowess, she softens, dancing and looking pretty for his amusement. Now it’s his turn to play blasé. They take in a sunset that turns her golden hair rose and connect deeply over its beauty.

But then what? What can the future hold for soulmates who want such different things? He gets off on crushing T Rexes’ skulls and she dreams of playing the great dramatic roles before settling down to make blond babies.

The real taboo here is sex. The consummation question would be a tricky one for Ann and Kong and nobody (especially Ann) wants to go there. Indeed, outside of the realm of friskyfarms and analbestiality.com, no self-respecting director will touch man-beast love of the carnal kind—unless, of course, it’s funny enough. In “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972), Gene Wilder’s Dr. Ross becomes smitten with a pretty young sheep named Daisy. Writer-director Woody Allen, well aware of the age-old rumors about shepherds cozying up to soft, docile lambs who don’t whine like their wives, treats the difference in species as inconsequential. When Dr. Ross is hauled to divorce court by his wife, the judge declares, “The defendant did commit an adulterous act with a sheep—most distasteful in view of the fact that the sheep was under 18 years old.”

And who can forget in “Airplane!” (1980), when Captain Oveur’s wife cheats on her husband with a horse? Nobody imagines that the neglected hussy chose her lover for his Kong-sized heart.

Ron Howard explored the logistical problems of interspecies love in “Splash” (1984), in which ordinary guy Allen Bauer (Tom Hanks) learns that his girlfriend Madison (Daryl Hannah) is a mermaid. While she has no problem doing the nasty all over Allen’s swanky pad while in human form, Madison has other needs—namely being surrounded by saltwater—that prevent her from living a normal life on land. In this case, it’s Allen who sacrifices his natural habitat and home to, in a fairy-tale twist, swim off to a wistfully happy ending at sea.

Apparently interspecies romance barely registers if neither party is human. It seems completely normal for Stuart Little the mouse (Michael J. Fox), for example, to fall in love with a cute little bird who speaks with Melanie Griffith’s sweet, chirping squeak. And nobody questions the flirtation that unites sensitive Kermit the Frog and his bimbo Miss Piggy—although nobody really wants to imagine what antics they get up to in the bedroom either.

With technology that allows directors to improve the classics with stunning feats of CGI-driven realism and the wisdom that comes from digesting films past, modern movies are able to deconstruct cinematic mythologies to create new ones that take the old ones’ lessons into account. While Jackson’s Kong decapitates more realistic brontosauruses and develops a more emotionally complex connection to Ann than the 1933 original, so “Shrek” one-ups “Beauty and the Beast,” riffing on fairy-tale conventions to smart, comic effect. In the 2001 film, the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) sees the loveliness that lies inside an ugly green ogre (Mike Myers). Instead of wishing her frog would turn into a prince, Fiona embraces the ugly green ogre in herself—rectifying the interspecies divide with a fresh, post-modern spin. Shrek and Fiona’s happy-ever-after is especially satisfying because the misshapen misfits find true love without having to turn blond, skinny or beautiful. In fact, they reject that option when it is offered. Instead, they find love based on the loveliness within. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and to Shrek and Fiona, there’s no face they’d rather wake up to in the morning.

But “King Kong” is not a fairy tale. There are no spells to turn Kong into a handsome playwright or Ann into a pretty she-monkey. So their love story turns tragic, as a relationship between a woman and a giant ape cannot last. If no spell has been cast, if the beast has no hope of becoming human, what options does he have? The feud between the Montagues and Capulets seems a mere pockmark compared to the chasm dividing Kong from Ann Darrow. There is no hope for their union, and once he’s loved her, Kong is no more capable of living without Ann than Romeo without his Juliet. Like those other star-crossed lovers, death is the only option for King Kong. As Jack Black’s character Carl Denham says as he stands beside the fallen body of Kong, “It wasn’t the planes that got him. It was beauty killed the beast.”