There are stories that demand three or more hours of film to tell them. Lord of the Rings was one of them, King Kong isn't. Peter Jackson could have and should have lost at least thirty minutes from his monkey opus. He didn't, be ready to forgive him. Is this a movie good enough to overcome its excessive, 187 minute length? Oh hell yes.
Directed and co-written by Peter Jackson, Kong uses a combination of models, sets, computer animation, and Andy Serkis in a motion-capture unitard to return to theaters the giant ape made famous back in 1933. Since his debut in the first Kong, the simian’s story has been retold ad nauseam, both in official sequels and not-so-official ones like Mighty Joe Young. None of them have approached the greatness of this, perhaps not even the original.
The basics of the story remain much the same. An obsessively self-promoting filmmaker named Carl Denham (Jack Black) loads a film crew and a hapless young actress named Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) onto a boat called Venture to set out for a mysterious place known only as Skull Island. There, they find more at their shooting location than they bargained for. The natives kidnap Darrow’s leading lady and sacrifice her to their local god… a 25ft tall ape named Kong. But Kong doesn't do with Anne what he usually does with his other victims. Her blonde hair hypnotizes him, her beauty beguiles him, and so he leaves her extremities intact. This monkey's in love.
The essentials remain spot on faithful to the original movie Jackson is remaking, but in between those basics he's made this pic his own. Now more than a sympathetic monster movie, Kong has become a deeply emotional, sometimes tortured film. Thematically, this is a story not about fighting gargantuan monsters, but about loneliness. Naomi Watts is a big part of that deeper story, she plays off Kong like the uber-furball is actually standing there. Anne identifies with his tragedy, and we see him through her eyes.
This has the unexpected effect of making it possible to absolutely love Kong, even while he's biting the head off one of the movie's human hero characters. King Kong's not pulling any punches, and Jackson’s film is almost surprisingly brutal in the way people are smashed, shaken, shot, impaled, and in many cases eaten. Again, Jackson has taken that 1933 source material and put his stamp on it. His affinity for the macabre is all over the movie, in a way that's been absent in past incarnations. As a result, the film is in parts flat out scary, the kind of scary you don't usually get outside of Freddie Krueger. Take a date and wait for her to crush your arm during the movie's gleefully gruesome bug attack.
If there's anywhere Kong misses, it's only because Peter's reach has extended beyond his grasp. Anyone who's seen The Chronicles of Narnia may have noticed that movie's difficulty with blending computer animated characters into live action shots. Simply put, sometimes they don’t look like they fit. King Kong has the opposite problem, and the movie’s most ambitious scenes are consistently plagued by flesh and blood, humans who don't mesh into the beautifully constructed backgrounds behind them. You’re left you with a movie full of actors that look like they’re running in front of a screen while a lot of wild hoopla goes on behind them, which in point of fact they are.
It’s kind of odd, when you consider that WETA had a hand in the effects on both Kong and Narnia. On Narnia they did the set building and live-action practical effects, so they ended up with a movie in which the computer animated characters don’t fit into the live set pieces. On Kong they did the CGI, and ended up with living actors who don’t fit into the computer generated stuff. Luckily, most of the film uses a combination of different effects techniques, and this isn't a problem that happens consistently enough to kill the pic. But it's worth noting that this isn't a new issue for Jackson. Some might remember a few really bad blue screen shots in the Balrog cave from Fellowship of the Ring. Other directors seem to manage blue screen work better. George Lucas's Star Wars movies for instance, whatever their faults, at least convincingly place the actors involved inside a computer generated world. In Kong, where Jackson is now using more computer effects than ever, the problem has only become a tougher nut to for him to crack.
What makes these little effects flaws all the more frustrating is that the movie’s computer generated creatures are actually quite spectacular (Kong in particular, look into his eyes, he has a soul) on their own, it’s only that the actors interacting with them don’t always look as though they’re standing on the same planet.
Those special effects criticisms are small potatoes in the face of a feature film this masterfully created. It's too involving and full of little delights to be dragged down by fx work. This is the kind of movie that'd be nearly as good were it still using those primitive stop-motion techniques put to work on the original. Whenever a bad green screen shot pulls you out, Jackson’s killer cast is there to pull you back. I’ve already talked about how important Watts is to this thing, but stop a minute and consider Carl Denham. Jack Black absolutely owns this pic, and I found myself more interested in what happened to him than the other male lead, heroic Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). It’s not that Brody isn’t good, he’s actually perfect, but Denham’s character has been wonderfully fleshed out in this new version, and Black grabs on to the now fleshier part and cooks it with all the barely contained energy he can muster. It’s not only the leads that make an impact. There are more significant minor characters in this new Kong than in any other incarnation. Andy Serkis is having a blast as Lumpy the cook, and his death is unforgettable. Colin Hanks turns in a nice stint as Denham’s assistant, and the closest thing the Denham has to a conscience.
It's clear from what's up on screen that the people making it love this material, and Jackson has found a way to bring new life to it. He adds sentiment and heart to the exiting Kong mythos that’s never been there before. Once the script gets to New York, there’s such an air of inevitability to what happens, that even in the film’s happiest moments it’s also breathtakingly sad. This is easily one of the year’s most gut wrenching tragedies, and it’s a pretty good action-adventure movie too. You may have seen King Kong before, but you’ve never seen it like this.
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