3½ stars (out of four)
The new "King Kong" is a blast, and I'm probably not the only one surprised at how well the lavishly overstuffed project, unlike Kong after the fall, lands on its feet.
The great achievement of Peter Jackson's remake, the one he couldn't get anyone to finance until the fearsome global grosses of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, hinges on many factors. One, they got the big boy right. In the same way actor Andy Serkis and a team of computer animators created Gollum in "Lord of the Rings," the towering yet nimble lord of a lost world is portrayed by Serkis (he also plays the cook on board the S.S. Venture) and then re-portrayed, digitally, by Jackson's animators.
The result is a proud, tough loner who moves like lightning. The original Kong, the one who saved RKO from financial ruin back in 1933, can never be topped: Working with an 18-inch miniature, effects wizard Willis O'Brien fashioned a remarkable stop-motion icon. But the new Kong is just different enough to be terrific screen company. His relationship with his leading lady, played with heart and panache by Naomi Watts, doesn't feel like an old story retold. It feels like a brand new story.
Success factor two is the tale of two magical islands, Manhattan and Skull. The movie's technologically complex evocations of 1933 New York are as thrilling as anything in Kong's zip ZIP code. Director Jackson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, has shrewdly kept "King Kong" part and parcel of 1933, the worst year of the Depression. He has made a swell period picture.
It begins with a quick tour of New York City in all its gritty, atmospheric glory. As Al Jolson sings about "sittin' on top of the world" - nice allusion to the climax - "King Kong" piles up images of homeless and have-nots, along with the swells. The movie may be a fantasy, guided by one of the silliest durable myths of 20th Century popular culture, but when cash-strapped vaudevillian and actress Ann Darrow contemplates going into burlesque to earn a buck, it's no joke. Times are hard, and visually the realization of these times helps us into a truly tall tale.
The obsessive detail of production designer Grant Major's work folds seamlessly into the computer-generated skylines. And when Kong, having been brought to the world of show business against his will, breaks out of the Broadway theater and starts messing with Times Square, your feelings are gloriously mixed. Does Kong have no feeling at all for what Jackson and company have done for little old New York?
For a movie that runs a tick over three hours, "King Kong" moves like a streak, and once the protagonists arrive at Skull Island, it's Monsters, Inc. every minute. (Don't be mistaken, however, regarding the appropriate audience age range for "King Kong"; I wouldn't take anyone under 10 or 11.) There's an exciting dinosaur stampede and, paying homage to the original film's excised spider pit sequence, a particularly ooky array of giant slugs and roaches and man-eating whatzits. The natives of Skull Island are scary, too, yet you don't get that patronizing racial hangover watching their crimson-eyed rantings as you do in the original; they've been sufficiently and creatively turned into a desperate band of survivors living on an island that time forgot.
Looking good, screaming less
Besides looking great in Fay Wray's old hats, Watts is just right as Ann Darrow, screaming far less often than Wray did in the original, and never forcing a single emotion. (The script contains several sly references to Ms. Wray and the original film.) Jack Black plays maverick moviemaker Carl Denham; he's OK, though you wish he brought more snap and verve to the dialogue. Adrien Brody is playwright Jack Driscoll, kidnapped by his old pal Denham to finish the movie scenario to be shot on the mysterious fogged-in island. Despite a little too much hair for 1933, he's fun.
As Kongiacs like to remind everyone, "King Kong" is at heart a love story. In the original film, Kong, the brute from the jungle, embodiment of 1,001 racially charged rape myths, pokes his dishy blonde like an adolescent on the verge of a discovery he can't handle. The 1976 remake went further with the hubba-hubba stuff, although each lovesick close-up of Kong in that forgettable campfest showed us a teenager who couldn't quite get the nerve up to ask the pretty girl at the dance to dance.
Director Jackson ditches all that, and makes the central Kong/Darrow relationship work. (The nominal human-to-human love story of Darrow and Driscoll pales in comparison.) Darrow knows what she has to do to avoid a bad end to their first date: She has to entertain him. So she pulls out some of her vaudevillian routines. They work. And without getting uber-sappy about it, the new "King Kong" is, in the end - and what an ending; Kong's last look at Darrow is a heartbreaker - a weirdly plausible retelling of the oddest couple in the history of odd couples.
Not without its flaws
The movie is not concise, and it is not flawless. As in the "Rings" trilogy, director Jackson proves overly fond of a certain digital aerial perspective, swooping down and around some new wonder or other. The middle hour on Skull Island contains perhaps one too many unholy monstrous threats on the human characters. Later, back in New York, Kong and Darrow share a lyric interlude on the frozen Central Park lagoon that is a bit much. (I'm surprised he didn't take her to a show.) But not long afterward, when Kong and Darrow reach the top of the world's tallest building and hang around long enough to see the sun rise, the sight is a beaut, proof that computer-generated animation can achieve lyrical results in the right hands.
In its multiplicity of visual effects, "King Kong" extends the last decade's worth of cinematic advances. When the S.S. Venture lands on Skull Island, the storms and waves are as good as anything in "The Perfect Storm." The dinos are right up to the "Jurassic Park" level.
As for the gargantuan, emotionally expressive simian of the title, well, the only one to compare is the original from a long time ago and a special effects galaxy far, far away. Is there any visual poetry in the new "Kong" to equal the stop-motion creature of genius that freaked out generation after generation? Maybe not. But the way the gorilla and the actress become acquainted, under extreme duress, in Jackson's film, you're astonished at how well the makers have thought everything through.
Over a series of lovingly detailed and perfectly paced exchanges that would not have been possible without the casting of Serkis and Watts, Kong and Darrow transcend their pulp origins - or rather, they ascend to the highest plateau of pulp.
Jackson is filmmaker and entertainer enough to use all the technology at his disposal without losing sight of the sublimely improbable story of beast and beauty, and the exquisitely realized islands they call home.
Directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; production design by Grant Major; music by James Newton Howard; edited by Jamie Selkirk and Jabez Olssen; special makeup, creatures and miniatures by Richard Taylor; senior visual effects supervised by Joe Letteri; produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Walsh and Jackson. A Universal Pictures release; opens 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. Running time: 3:07. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images)
Ann Darrow - Naomi Watts
Carl Denham - Jack Black
Jack Driscoll - Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn - Thomas Kretschmann
Preston - Colin Hanks
Lumpy/Kong - Andy SerkisCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times