Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow
Jack Black as Carl Denham
Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll
Andy Serkis as King Kong/Lumpy the Cook
Jamie Bell as Jimmy
Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter
Lobo Chan as Choy
Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Englehorn
Evan Parke as Hayes
Colin Hanks as Preston
John Sumner as Herb
Peter Jackson’s latest epic is far from perfect, just as it’s far too long. Without a question, the true stars are Naomi Watts, Andy Serkis and the Weta FX team, who pretty soon, won’t even need a director to make a great movie.
If you don’t know the story of King Kong then you probably shouldn’t even be reading this, but essentially, film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) decides to shoot his next movie on the remote Skull Island, which doesn’t appear on any map, along with his new discovery Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), but she ends up becoming a human sacrifice to the natives’ bestial god “Kong,” a giant gorilla. So begins the love affair between a woman and her monkey, as the perils of Skull Island pick off the ship’s crew as they try to save her from the ape and then capture it to bring back to civilization.
One of the most anticipated films of the year, Peter Jackson’s follow-up to the mega-epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is very much a labor of love, since it’s a remake of the director’s favorite movie of all-time, the 1933 monster classic “King Kong.” Just like that film set a standard for stop motion animation, Jackson and his effects team Weta FX set a new standard for computer effects, so on paper, this seems like a perfect match.
Compared to the original, Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is far from a masterpiece, and sadly, it leaves a lot to be desired, but not because Jackson isn’t trying to please his many new fans from the Rings trilogy (including me). The key adjective that best describes this remake is “more.” There are more laughs, more drama, more amazing CGI creatures and more everything than anyone can possibly want, and while that would usually be appreciated, a lot of it takes away from the original 1933 story. Yes, it’s “Titanic” all over again.
Of course, it doesn’t help comparisons to spend the first hour of a movie on a boat with a lot of characters, trying to develop all of the back stories at once. It mostly focuses on three central characters–Jack Black’s Carl Denham, a Cecile B. Demille wannabe; his starlet, an impoverished actress played by Naomi Watts, who was paid a lot less to do the same role in the recent “Ellie Parker”; and Adrien Brody as Denham’s screenwriter Jack Driscoll, who we spend most of the first hour thinking he’ll get the girl.
Let’s face it. Anyone going to see this movie is going to see it for the great ape Kong, and after spending over 45 minutes on the boat, it’s hard not to start getting impatient. When they finally find Skull Island, with a surplus of ridiculous melodrama and running around as if they’re on the Starship Enterprise, you still don’t know where things are going. The rousing speech given by the ship’s first mate Hayes, played by Evan Parke, to his young pal Jimmy, a ship castaway who is given a completely superfluous and unresolved storyline, makes you wonder why he wasn’t hired to write Denham’s film. This leads to an encounter with the natives, hired directly from Aboriginal central casting. It takes the deaths of a few crew members before they realize that they should have brought their guns.
Once we get past all of that, things start to pick up as we finally are given when we came to see, action and effects. In that sense, “King Kong” doesn’t disappoint, because Jackson’s frequent collaborators Weta FX are clearly on top of their game. It kicks off with a brontosaurus stampede that surpasses anything in the “Jurassic Park” movies. It’s not perfect, since you can see some of the green screen “seams,” and it probably could have done without the “killer geckos” running with the herd. After that, the crew faces a variety of giant bugs, including some giant sucking creatures that look cool but have no real world counterparts, but it’s unnecessary, because we get it. Skull Island is dangerous. Let’s get on with the story. Ann herself gets into a bit too much damsel in distress peril, but Kong is always there to save her, which leads to the film’s climactic centerpiece and the best reason to see it on a big screen, Kong’s battle with the T-Rexes, an absolutely astounding piece of cinema and computer technology that you can’t help but applaud.
But that’s still not the best part of the movie, which would be the quieter scenes between Naomi Watts and the computer animated Kong. Andy Serkis, the actor that provided Kong’s movements and facial expressions, much like he did the Rings’ Gollum, brings so much credible humanity to the creature that you can see why Anne is taken with him. The nicest moment between them is the transition where Ann entertains Kong, convincing him to keep her alive. At that point, he becomes little more than a pet to her, while she becomes a very lively pet toy. Some scenes do get a bit overly sentimental and like other parts, they’re drawn on far too long, but this romance is clearly the heart of the story Jackson wanted to tell and that definitely works thanks to both fine actors.
The rest of the supporting cast isn’t nearly as strong. Adrien Brody, a great actor I normally love, is grossly miscast, and it’s hard to take Jack Black too seriously in his role as director Carl Denham, because everything he says seems to be humorous even during serious moments. We’re just too used to him playing things for laughs. The rest of the cast, which includes Colin Hanks and Thomas Kretschmann, who played the “friendly Nazi” opposite Brody in The Pianist, is good, but again, there’s no reason for so many supporting characters to play such a large part in the story.
Thankfully, the last hour of the movie keeps up the momentum from Kong’s capture to his debut on Broadway and ultimately, escaping and taking his lady love to the top of the Empire State Building where we all know what happens. Before that, we get another “awwww” moment where Kong takes his Ann to Central Park for a romp on the ice, another nice moment drawn out for too long. After Kong’s brutal rampage through the streets of New York, it’s hard for us to sympathize with him just because Ann seems able to forget that this beloved creature of hers is a killer. The climactic battle with the planes is a bit more fleshed out than the original, but not quite as impressive because of scale issues that makes Kong look tiny compared to the original. It’s the only time Kong looks more like a gorilla on steroids than the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
It’s a shame that Jackson sacked Howard Shore, composer for all the “Lord of the Rings” movies, because James Newton Howard’s score is hokey and at times, verges on “cookie cutter” scoring. Though the movie looks good, some ideaslike the slo-motion effect overused in the movie’s first hourreally takes you out of the “old time feel” of the movie.
Don’t get me wrong. This film is an amazing achievement in effects and technologyjust the fact that Weta recreated 1933 New York from the ground up is mindblowing–but it doesn’t compare to the original as far as storytelling. Jackson goes over-the-top with everything, and most of it is just too much. As critics and moviegoers, we may have deified Peter Jackson to the point where he believes everything he does is gold, and with that kind of egocentricity gone unchecked, things are bound to go wrong. Jackson had the opportunity to make a 2 hour and 15 minute film that was great, and instead, he made a 3 hour movie that’s just okay.
The Bottom Line:
There’s no denying that the humanity in the Kong-Ann relationship is the heart of the film, but everything else is just a director who has forgotten the adage “less is more.” Then again, those who enjoy Jackson’s previous films will probably forgive the movie’s pacing and storytelling problems once the action kicks into high gear.