King Kong (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

Peter Jackson updates the legendary “beauty and the beast” tale for modern audiences. He’s big! He’s an unstoppable force of nature! He smashes through any obstacles in his path with a mighty roar! No, not King Kong—it’s director Peter Jackson we’re talking about. Has this man no fears? After making arguably the most gargantuan, critically and commercially successful trilogy in film history with Lord of the Rings, wearing himself ragged in the process, you’d think ol’ Pete would’ve enjoyed making a nice little low-key picture for a change. Not a chance. The success of LOTR, actually, is what allowed Jackson to do the project he’d dreamed of years before—updating the legendary “beauty and the beast” tale Kong for modern audiences.

The original 1933 pic was the movie that inspired Jackson to become a director, as all film buffs know. And he longed to someday remake the picture in color, using all the state-of-the-art technology he now had at his disposal. Anyone skeptical of the New Zealand wunderkind’s ability to pull this off doesn’t know Jack-son. Talk about a roaring good time at the movies! Everyone knows the plot, so let’s dispense with it quickly: Girl meets ape, ape falls for girl big time, ape fights off nasty beasts to protect girl, cocky filmmaker captures ape after romantic hero rescues her, ape is taken back to New York for crass commercial purposes, ape falls off building. That was the essence of the original story, but Jackson and his brilliant co-writers—wife Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens—have found countless ways to add subtlety and textural intrigue to the story.

The heroine, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, who soars to the A list updating the role that made Fay Wray famous), is a down-on-her-luck actress with dim prospects indeed when filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) offers her a chance to join his somewhat dubious new romantic adventure, to be filmed in the general area of, uh, Singapore—yeah, that’s it. Carl isn’t exactly a con artist, but he’s talking fast and working even faster to outwit producers that intend to pull the plug on his production. He virtually kidnaps playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who is writing the screenplay for this new project, and since Darrow’s a fan of Driscoll’s work, it’s pretty clear these two are gonna get together. Off they all go on a grungy tramp steamer piloted by Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). Skull Island, here we come!

This is obviously a familiar, iconic tale (which lost much of its fizz with the less-than-stellar 1976 version starring Jessica Lange), but Jackson wanted to return to the period settings of the original and add more characterization. He does both brilliantly. The main characters are much more interesting to watch and follow through this wild journey; they are not mere stereotypes as in the old version, classic though it was for its time. Watts makes a truly luminous Ann Darrow; to say the camera adores her would be an understatement. Kong has never seen the likes of her before, and her lovely, expressive face is shown in rapturous close-ups (some might say a little too often). Watts makes you believe the range of emotions she feels for this giant creature—from fear to awe to empathy and then to genuine affection. Watching her play little psych-out games with Kong in his cliffside lair is thoroughly entertaining, and far more character revealing than merely being pawed or looking scared.

The big guy, too, is light years beyond any ape portrayals of the past. Andy Serkis (who gave expression and character to Gollum in the LOTR trilogy) similarly inhabits Kong here; he studied the behavior and movements of real lowland gorillas to make sure these would be as authentic as possible. A genuine bond is established between the super-simian and his fair young companion, making the emotional stakes much higher than you’d think possible when Kong meets his inevitable downfall. As for Brody, he’s rather magnetic and dashing here and he looks fantastic in the few real scenes he has with Watts. Black, too, avoids being merely the puffed-up showman; Jackson gives him some interesting moments that show he’s at least contemplating the consequences of some of his actions.

Speaking of action, though, that’s how this film will be earning its surefire payday at the box office. There are unbelievably spectacular scenes of giant sauropods racing down a ravine along with our intrepid heroes (this sequence is genuinely dizzying and could perhaps have been trimmed), of Kong engaged in a furious battle with several T. Rexes, and of Driscoll, Denham, and Co. trapped in a very nasty pit inhabited by giant spiders, worms, and other voracious critters. And that’s just the second hour. When Kong is brought back to New York, a different sort of action entails, and Jackson’s recreation of ’30s-era New York is a visionary marvel. The cinematography and art direction are seamless, and you’ll be swept along by both the stunning visuals and the elegant score by James Newton Howard.

Kong is not perfect, however. Some scenes are just too long; Jackson apparently get spellbound by his own climactic action sequences. The failure to show how Kong is transported back on the steamer is a little too glaring to shrug off, and a scene of Kong and Darrow playing on a frozen pond is too precious by a paw’s length. And why wasn’t Darrow wearing a coat if it’s wintertime? But quibbles aside, King Kong is grand, delirious, dazzling entertainment that only solidifies Peter Jackson’s place as the big-hearted techno wizard of modern adventure cinema. Audiences around the world are gonna go ape, man.

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