Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see a marvel for the ages! Adventure! Romance! Horror! All in one three-hour motion picture! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: KING KONG!!
Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1933 classic is an epic experience, three solid hours of high-flying entertainment and special effects wizardry. It follows the same story as the original (and its inferior 1976 remake), but it magnifies everything — the scary parts are scarier, the exciting parts are more exciting, and so on. Where Kong once faced a dinosaur, he now faces three. You get the idea.
Jackson has set his new version in the year the original came out, so it’s not just Kong and his mysterious island that are fantastical; in 1933, even New York City seems like a different world, with its Depression-era bread lines and shanty towns and desperately out-of-work actors, filmmakers and producers.
One of these is Carl Denham (Jack Black), a consummate showman and huckster who uses studio backing to fund an insane sea voyage. He intends to shoot a film on the ship and at whatever locale they arrive at, using playwright Jack Driscoll’s (Adrien Brody) script. Of course, Jack hasn’t actually finished the script yet, but that kind of detail has never stopped a low-budget filmmaker like Carl Denham.
At the last minute, Carl persuades Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a between-jobs vaudeville performer, to be his leading lady for the film, playing opposite suave matinee idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler). And off they go to parts unknown — except Carl has a secret destination in mind, gleaned from a mysterious map he acquired. They’ll be dropping anchor at Skull Island, a mythical land that time forgot where there are hostile natives and an unusually large ape of whom you may have heard tell.
The film is easily divided into three acts. There’s an hour of events leading up to Skull Island, 90 minutes spent on Skull Island, and 30 minutes back in New York. I will say this: We ought to get to Skull Island faster, and once we return to New York, we ought to end more quickly. That Skull Island section — the length of many films by itself — comprises some of the most ingeniously crafted horror, suspense and adventure scenes ever put on film. It’s 90 minutes of buoyantly paced, adrenaline-pumping action, each sequence seeming to top the one before it. (Dinosaurs! Dinosaurs running! Dinosaurs FIGHTING! DINOSAURS FIGHTING KONG!!) I jotted in my notes that one of the scenes was “breathtaking,” only to discover that the one following it was even MORE spectacular.
The result is that when Kong is relocated to New York, where he is destined to climb the Empire State Building and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (not to mention the bullets of biplanes) … well, it’s a bit of a letdown. That middle section that occupies half the film is such a tour-de-force of perilous adventure that almost nothing could follow it. The film would have been better served with the New York finale coming as an extension of the Skull Island climax, not as a wholly separate act.
Admittedly, in the spectrum of complaints, “the middle part was too exciting” is not a very damning one. But I also take issue, as I suspected I might, with Jack Black as Carl Denham. He has the character’s mad profiteering down, but that’s as far as he goes. If Carl has emotions, they are suppressed by Black’s wide-eyed ironic detachment, which works fine in comedies but has no place in an earnest old-fashioned adventure tale like this one. He’s miscast, plain and simple, and the screenplay (by Jackson and his usual writing partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) gives him one opportunity after another to grow into a dynamic character, only to yank the chance away again every time.
The other central characters, Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll, aren’t meant to do anything other than fall in love and be separated by Kong. Naomi Watts’ interaction with Kong is very interesting, however. Enacted by Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit and subsequently computerized (like they did for Serkis as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” series), Kong behaves the way a real ape would. The physical movements are correct, and so are the attitudes — angry, amused, petulant, at times almost human. Watts seems to be in the company not of a bizarre monster, but of a real animal, albeit an oversized one. Neither of the film’s other versions ever achieved that level of realism.
The big question in the final act is whether we buy how attached Ann has become to Kong over the course of their time together. I bought it; some probably won’t. They have a scene together in Central Park, after he’s escaped from his captors but before he climbs the Empire State Building. Whether you find that moment sweet or stupid is probably indicative of you feel about the film overall. By the end, I thought of Kong as Ann’s pet. And we all know how sad it is when the military shoots our pets down from atop skyscrapers.
B+ (3 hrs., 7 min.; )