|Movies don't come any bigger than Peter Jackson's King Kong, a three-hour remake of the 1933 classic that marries breathtaking visual prowess with a surprising emotional depth. Expanding on the original story of the blonde beauty and the beast who falls for her, Jackson creates a movie spectacle that matches his Lord of the Rings films and even at times evokes their fantasy world while celebrating the glory of '30s Hollywood. Naomi Watts stars as Ann Darrow, a vaudeville actress down on her luck in Depression-era New York until manic filmmaker Carl Denham (a game but miscast Jack Black) entices her with a lead role. Dazzled by the genius of screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), Ann boards the tramp steamer S.S. Venture, which she--and most of the wary crew--believes is headed for Singapore. Denham, however, is in search of the mythic Skull Island, hoping to capture its wonders on film and make a fortune. What he didn't count on were some scary natives who find that the comely Darrow looks like prime sacrifice material for a mysterious giant creature....
There's no point in rehashing the entire plot, as every movie aficionado is more than familiar with the trajectory of King Kong; the challenge facing Jackson, his screenwriters, and the phenomenal visual-effects team was to breathe new life into an old, familiar story. To that degree, they achieve what could be best called a qualified success. Though they've assembled a crackerjack supporting cast, including Thomas Kretschmann as the Venture's hard-bitten captain and young Jamie Bell as a plucky crewman, the first third of the movie is rather labored, with too much minute detail given over to sumptuous re-creations of '30s New York and the unexciting initial leg of the Venture's sea voyage. However, once the film finds its way to Skull Island (which bears more than a passing resemblance to LOTR's Mordor), Kong turns into a dazzling movie triumph, by turns terrifying and awe-inspiring. The choreography and execution of the action set pieces--including one involving Kong and a trio of Tyrannosaurus Rexes, as well as another that could be charitably described as a bug-phobic's nightmare--is nothing short of landmark filmmaking, and a certain Mr. Spielberg should watch his back, as Kong trumps most anything that has come before it.
Despite the visual challenges of King Kong, the movie's most difficult hurdle is the budding romance between Ann and her simian soulmate. Happily, this is where Jackson unqualifiedly triumphs, as this unorthodox love story is tenderly and humorously drawn, by turns sympathetic and wondrous. Watts, whose accessibility balances out her almost otherworldly loveliness, works wonders with mere glances, and Andy Serkis, who digitally embodies Kong here much as he did Gollum in the LOTR films, breathes vibrant life into the giant star of the film without ever overplaying any emotions. The final, tragic act of the film, set mostly atop the Empire State Building, is where Kong earns its place in movie history as a work that celebrates both the technical and emotional heights that film can reach. --Mark Englehart