For anyone old enough to remember TV's "Million Dollar Movie" and its daily helpings of the RKO library, the idea of remaking King Kong-forget the inept 1976 version-comes close to heresy. The original 1933 film is an icon of cinema, the first great monster movie and a still-amazing special-effects groundbreaker. It's a primal, thrilling, indelible memory for the generation raised on black-and-white.
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's masterpiece also cast a spell on New Zealand director Peter Jackson-he says it's the movie that made him want to be a filmmaker. And so it's with at least as much affection as brazenness that he's taken on the task of re-imagining the saga of the mammoth ape, using the kind of cutting-edge visual effects that won three consecutive Oscars for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The result is a phenomenal popcorn movie that eclipses the original in several respects, but inevitably owes a huge debt to the powerful imagery and innovation of the 1930s landmark.
Jackson, a director who likes to think big, has made a three-hour epic from his 100-minute source, adding lots of back-story for his human leads while maintaining the Depression-era backdrop. Much of the new material appears in the first hour, as we meet Carl Denham (impish Jack Black), a filmmaker/adventurer who's even more of a slippery huckster than the 1933 model, and struggling actress and newly unemployed vaudeville performer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Carl hires Ann as a last-minute replacement ingénue for his new film; what Ann and most of Carl's crew don't know is that he's just stolen the unfinished print from his financiers and plans to shoot footage on a mysterious location called Skull Island. Also on the voyage, against his will, is screenwriter and New York playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody), a less macho substitute for the first mate who romanced Ann in the original.
On the eerily forbidding Skull Island, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and bound up as a sacrifice to the jungle's most feared predator, the gargantuan ape named Kong. Carl and his cohorts race to the rescue, and what follows is one harrowing set-piece after another, featuring an array of prehistoric creatures and giant insects. Ultimately-though not without fatalities-Ann is recovered and Carl, his incredible adventure footage having been destroyed, hatches a scheme to capture Kong and bring him back to New York. As anyone familiar with the original knows, this is not one of Carl's better entrepreneurial ideas.
From first frame to last, King Kong is an eye-popping showcase for Jackson's Weta Digital effects team. The period New York scenes are a riot of architecture, neon signage and vintage cars, and the jungle sequences make Jurassic Park look like a benign kiddie attraction. There's a thundering Brontosaurus stampede, followed by a sensational battle between Kong (holding Ann all the while) and three T-rexes in a network of vines over a ravine, followed by a giant spider and slug attack that recalls the "ick" factor of Jackson's early gross-out comedies-it's almost too much excitement for an audience to handle.
But the utmost effects triumph of King Kong is Kong himself. Working with motion-capture performance footage of actor Andy Serkis (who brought the great Gollum to life in the Rings films), the Weta technicians have created an extraordinarily expressive gorilla, one that communicates recognizable emotions while remaining a fully persuasive, photorealistic animal. After Gollum, Kong becomes the new benchmark in computer-generated characterization, and he's well-served by Watts' total commitment to her side of the partnership. After Kong saves Ann's life, the ex-vaudevillian puts on a private show to express her appreciation, and an endearing bond is formed between beauty and beast that expands upon Fay Wray's classic 1933 odyssey. Surprisingly, the new film is as much a wild love story as it is a wild adventure.
Jackson' imagination flags somewhat in the film's big New York climax, wasting too much time on a tired taxi-cab chase involving Brody's Jack, but the Empire State Building and recreated Manhattan skyline are as glorious as ever. Kong's protracted battle to the death shows Jackson again having trouble ending the show, but the big ape and the bushy-haired director earn the right to take a lengthy curtain call. The new Kong may not replace the old Kong in the Icon Hall of Fame, but this is as spectacular as 21st-century movie entertainment gets.