After conquering Middle Earth, where does one go? If you are PeterJackson, you head to Skull Island to revisit the story that started you onyour career path: King Kong. Riding a wave of anticipation and hypethat makes the ad campaign on the last Star Wars seem quaint,Jackson’s mega-budget, effects laden update of the 1933 original has finallyarrived to conquer the Christmas box office. One question remains: does thefilm deliver on its marketed promise?
A quick recap: it’s the 1930s, and a brazen film maker named Carl Denham(Jack Black) leads his film crew, including actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts)and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), to a mysterious island toshoot his latest feature (and to escape the financiers out to shut Carl’sproduction down).
Before you can say “monkey shines”, Ann is kidnapped by the local islandgentry and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25-foot tall ape who is thelast of his kind. While Carl and Jack organize a rescue party to get Annback, the beauty and the beast become close, with Kong defending his newlady friend from creatures of all shapes and sizes. When Kong is capturedand brought back to New York City, the island journey makes way for anadventure on an island of another kind.
The original ran 104 minutes and the dismal 1976 version 135 minutes.Jackson’s take on the Kong story runs a whopping 187. Now, I have no problemwith a film running this long, if the story warrants it. King Kongdoes not. I normally applaud any and all film makers who take the time toestablish and develop the characters (Ann and Carl are nicely done; Jackstill could have used some work) and story of their films, especially whenyou are dealing with a project as effects-heavy as this one.
But for approximately the first 70 minutes of Kong, Jackson’s directingand screenplay, co-written by his Lord of the Rings partners FranWalsh and Philippa Boyens, is not up to the epic standards he set with hislast three films. Slapstick situations, awkward pacing and some heavy-handeddialogue are enough to make one raise an eyebrow, but did Jackson have tospend nearly an hour developing the crewmembers of the boat that heads tothe island? Not if most of them either wind up as creature food or justcompletely disappear in the third hour – both which happen here.
But once you get past the creaky setup, King Kong gets down tobusiness. Backed once again by the technical pros that helped him bringLord of the Rings so vibrantly to the screen (one glaring omission: Rings composerHoward Shore was replaced by James Newton Howard, who produces a pedestrianmusic score here), Jackson fills the remaining two hours of his epic withall the brilliant production design, top-flight visual effects andshow-stopping set pieces that money, in this case $207 million worth, canbuy.
Jackson, however, doesn’t just deliver a three-hour effects demo reel/thrillride. He also gives us a monster movie with a heart and soul. The heart ofKing Kong has always been and always will be, naturally, therelationship between Ann and the Ape. Merian Cooper and Edgar Wallacerealized this back in the 1930s and Jackson, with the help of a solidperformance by the beautiful Watts, absolutely nails this vitalaspect of the film as well, taking advantage of the film’s epic length todevelop it even further than in previous versions.
Visually, King Kong is the eighth wonder of the CGIworld. But what is so surprising – and welcome – is how much emotion is minedfrom what is basically a computer program. Weta Digital pushes the envelopeon Kong’s exterior, but it is actor Andy Serkis’ (who also appears as theship’s cook, Lumpy) brilliant, motion-captured performance that really makesKong come alive. His movements and facial expressions perfectly convey thebig simian’s loneliness, anger and determination to protect his newfoundhuman friend. It’s a remarkable piece of acting that should be recognised,just as his performance as Gollum should have been, come Academy Awardstime.
King Kong is a very good piece of popcorn cinema that stops just shy ofbeing great. But be patient with the first hour and you willbe rewarded with both a fun thrill ride and the year’s most unexpectedlymoving relationship. And make sure you see it all on the biggestscreen you can find. A film as colossal as its title character is not meant to beviewed on a television screen.