Three Cheers for an Eight-Ton Gorilla
Though endangered, a sense of wonderment can still be found inside the Cineplex. In King Kong, Peter Jackson unleashes a stomping spectacle with awesome special effects and a touching relationship between beauty and the beast. Remaking the storied 1933 original has long been a goal of Jackson's, and this gorilla lives up to his dream and the hype.
Think Titanic with a hirsute and rather large leading man instead of boyish Leonardo DiCaprio, dinosaurs and bugs instead of icebergs and water. As that reference implies, we're not talking about an artistic masterpiece. King Kong is an impressive feat of showmanship that indulges in high theatricality and technical excess. Its weaknesses can be forgiven because Jackson (Lord of the Rings) doesn't rest on the studio's marketing plan and consumer tie-ins. He delivers an update possessing raw power and a pure heart.
The three-hour runtime can be viewed cynically as posterior-numbing bloat or positively as giving audiences their money's worth. Any impresario worth his salt would be drawn to a tale containing such potent adventure and taboo-breaking romance. Only a filmmaker with Jackson's ambition and sense of independence would offer up a valentine to those in the showbiz trenches intent on entertaining mainstream filmgoers while also seeking out perilous exoticism. In other words, the Kiwi helmer has made the kind of movie he would like to see and one that would keep Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad and Cecile B. DeMille glued to the screen.
Jackson has stars in his eyes the same way huckster movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) has dollar signs. One step ahead of financiers who have pulled the plug, Denham flees Depression-era New York aboard a tramp steamer. He's in search of Skull Island where he intends to film a movie written by literary lion Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). At the last minute, he enlists a starving blond vaudevillian named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to join the cast.
When the rag-tag expedition arrives at the island, the natives offer Ann up as a sacrifice to a giant ape, who finds her too beautiful to destroy. A party consisting of the movie crew and assorted seamen plunge into the island's primordial tropical jungle, where they encounter dinosaurs and countless oversized bugs, slugs, and spiders. Kong retains possession of Ann, and so Driscoll attempts a rescue that miraculously nets her and Kong.
Denham brings the chloroformed primate back to New York and puts him on display in a Times Square theater, where he promptly breaks loose and goes on a rampage. Ann -- who wants nothing to do with Denham's cruel, mercenary brand of entertainment--arrives to soothe the lovesick Kong. They enjoy a reunion frolicking on the ice in Central Park until their tender idyll is interrupted by the Army. With Ann in tow, Kong scampers to the top of the Empire State Building, where the movie famously ends.
A plot overview can't do justice to both the spectacular action sequences and the emotional connection between Ann and her beaux. Kong, whose movements belong to actor Andy Serkis (who also plays the ship's cook), is a vivid character -- a preening, ferocious, gallant creature who puts all other males to shame, even the enamored Driscoll who morphs into a valiant man of action. Won over by Ann's beauty and her soft-shoe routine, Kong gets jealous and is prone to sulk and have childlike tantrums. For her part, Ann -- beautifully limned by Watts -- succumbs to the combination of testosterone and chivalry. Kong's moving demise evokes more feeling than a purely animalistic bond could.
Not everything in King Kong clicks however. The dialogue is the weakest element and secondary characters, such the young crewman (Jamie Bell) who lifts a copy of "Heart of Darkness" from the New York Public Library, don't add much. Jackson overdoes it with the stampeding dinosaurs, the hungry bugs, and the freaky looking islanders. These excesses prove he's a pure showman. The physical resemblance between him and Black is no coincidence. Carl Denham is his alter ego; they share an optimistic, can-do attitude that definitely has a crass side. But even while going overboard, Jackson never loses control (unlike Denham). The challenge he meets is raising the special effects bar without obscuring the relationship.
Jackson is obviously an ingenious technician and he and his coterie of craftsman attend to the details. For example, Kong has a bit of a pot belly following the long trip back to Gotham; and Times Square billboards advertising Universal Pictures can be seen in the background on two occasions. This is Jackson's nod to the studio that gave him a generous deal with unprecedented control over the movie. It's a nice gesture. Universal will really appreciate what King Kong adds to their bottom line.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for frightening action, violence and disturbing images.)