Remakes of great movies are by their very nature unnecessary–and usually disappointing. But if one must have a new “King Kong,” better that it should be Peter Jackson’s, made not only by a man whose past work has demonstrated an ability to put on big special-effects spectaculars with elan, but by a real fan of the 1933 original, which he’s often cited as the inspiration for him to go into moviemaking in the first place, rather than nothing more than a crass attempt to capitalize on the initial picture, which is basically what Dino De Laurentiis’ misguided half-spoofing 1976 version was. Jackson’s love of the classic co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack is evident in every frame of this new “Kong.” And that’s both its blessing and its curse. A blessing because of the reverence which the writer-director demonstrates toward the earlier version. And a curse because it leads him not only to retain everything he can from it but to expand on it as much as he can (even, in one instance, reinserting a prolonged episode that the filmmakers of seven decades ago had filmed for their version but wisely cut from it). True, his attitude is in some respects hipper and more tongue in cheek, something that’s obligatory considering the attitudinal shift over the generations, and he can’t help but take advantage of the enormous progress made in visual effects technology over the years. But as much as possible he’s tried to be true to the narrative arc and the emotional core of the original, while pumping it up and expanding its scope. The result is that his film is often wondrous to behold and enormously exciting (and, amazingly, even occasionally moving), but also way too long and at times exhaustingly elaborate. Jackson’s commitment and skill are apparent everywhere, but so too is his penchant (well-remembered from the endless climaxes of “The Return of the King”) to leave nothing out and give us more when a bit less would have been better. His “King Kong” is a like a luscious dessert whose cook insists that you have a few helpings too many.
It begins with a prologue introducing us to New York City in the 1930s–beautifully rendered but, in a foretaste of what’s to follow, stretched out in a way that seems designed more to show off the makers’ virtuosity than simply to set the stage for what follows. It’s here that we’re introduced to Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a vaudeville performer when such stuff is being killed off by the Depression, and who anyway wants to become a serious actress, especially in the plays she so admires by a writer named Jack Driscoll; and to Carl Denham (Jack Black), a shady movie producer who just happens to have absconded with the canisters containing an unfinished feature from which his unhappy partners are about to sack him. The two link up when Denham finds himself in need of a new leading lady for the completion of the picture, which he intends to shoot on a location to which he’s fleeing on a tramp steamer–and Miss Darrow just happens to fill the costumes perfectly. It’s not long before they’re aboard the ship, along with a shanghaied Driscoll (Adrien Brody), by happenstance the screenwriter of Carl’s opus, setting sail just as the police show up to arrest Denham. And after some tribulations at sea they reach the darkly menacing (and happily unchartered) Skull Island, where a group of unfriendly natives abduct Ann to offer her as a sacrifice to the titular giant ape. While she and Kong bond, the rest of the crew–especially Jack, who’s become as besotted with her as the ape does–try to rescue her (and Carl films the weird surroundings for his picture), in the process coming into contact with many of the island’s odd giant critters, including dinosaurs. But after many (indeed, too many) adventures, they wind up saving Ann and capturing Kong, which takes us to the movie’s last act, set back in the Big Apple, where the big fellow breaks free of the chains intended to keep him a theatrical attraction, finds Darrow, and carries her to the top of the Empire State Building without benefit of elevator for a final tryst before the tragic finale.
None of this is greatly different from the 1933 original; even the famous last line is retained. Why, then, does this “Kong” run 187 minutes while the earlier one was just 103? Because Jackson and his co-screenwriters have greatly elaborated the first two acts. Besides that long scene-setting prologue and greater background on Darrow and Denham (some of it admittedly amusing), the trip to Skull Island is vastly expanded, with a good deal of footage given over not only to Ann and Jack’s halting romance but to crew members like the captain (Thomas Kretschmann), Lumpy the Cook (Andy Serkis), and noble first mate Hayes (Evan Parke) and his naive protégé Jimmy (Jamie Bell), as well as preening Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), Ann’s co-star. There’s some juicy stuff here, with Chandler in particular getting laughs playing the arrogant dullard, but also very perplexing threads (like Jimmy’s odd background) and heavy-handedness (Jimmy’s fascination with “Heart of Darkness”–okay, we get it). But none of it adds any real heft, because all the characters remain caricatures no matter how much extra screen time they’re given. Still, the real padding comes in the Skull Island section of the picture, which, after Ann’s abduction, becomes a roller-coaster ride of special-effects action. And while it’s wild and exuberant, it does go on–so long in many cases, in fact, that the visual (and logical) imperfections are made more apparent than they should be. We watch Kong carrying Ann through the jungle to his favorite cliff at a rapid pace, for instance, and the movements take your breath away; but before long you’re wondering why, when she’s been so brusquely handled, every bone in her body hasn’t been broken along the way. It’s a good thing they aren’t, though, because she makes friends with the ape by doing her act for him–juggling and pratfalls–and it’s here that the picture develops whatever emotional tug it possesses, not only because Watts doesn’t play the scenes too tongue-in-cheek (a real danger), but also because Kong (“acted” by Serkis, whose movements were then mimicked in the CGI renditions) is so fully realized. But that’s only one part of the Skull Island sequence. There’s also an extended battle between Kong and a trio of tyrannosaurus rexes that’s literally a outrageous cliff-hanger. And meanwhile the scenes of Ann being tracked down include an overlong brontosaurus stampede, in which the placement of the humans within the dinosaur action doesn’t always seem convincing. And as if that weren’t enough, it’s followed by that sequence that was removed from the 1933 version–in which the pursuers are attacked by giant insects. It’s certainly pulled off effectively here–the creature effects, as one would expect, are splendid–but it does seem like something that’s wandered in from another movie. And then there’s another Kong battle, this time with some giant bats, that provides Jack with the distraction he needs to carry Ann back to “civilization” and–much to Denham’s delight–causes the ape to follow, and thereby open himself to capture. (By this point all those natives have suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. Did their contracts run out?) Taken together it all makes for a very long visit to the isle–the sequences individually impressive and exciting, but overextended and excessive. By contrast the New York finale is handled with much greater dispatch, even if one might still wonder why Denham would think a captive Kong would be more suitable to a Broadway stage than a zoo cage. But that’s a problem in the original movie, too.
Still, while one might wish that Jackson had been a bit less free with his virtuoso largesse, he’s certainly spared nothing to amaze us. Grant Major’s production design is splendid, and the team of art directors and set designers led by Dan Hennah have done their jobs with great panache; the effects crew have if anything been even more successful. And Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is gorgeous, too. In Kong’s shadow human performers don’t have much of a chance to shine, but though Black never achieves the Wellesian grandiosity Denham demands and Brody is more sturdy than heroic, Watts really shines as the would-be starlet with a heart and principles. And while most of the supporting cast is functional, Chandler proves a real scene-stealer as the obnoxious Baxter. James Newton Howard’s score–which replaces a rejected one by Howard Shore (a more interesting artist)–does the job, though it’s not terribly distinctive.
King Kong is a huge ape, and this is a huge movie too–a bit too much so, in fact. But in blockbusters like this extravagance is preferable to stinginess, and Jackson has certainly poured everything he can think of into it. And though he’s thought of more than would have been ideal, your reaction to Kong will probably be much like Ann Darrow’s: this ape is more likely to carry you away than turn you off.