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King Kong   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kreschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, Evan Parke, Kyle Chandler, Andy Serkis.

Review by Rob Vaux
"When monkey die, everybody cry."
--Dino De Laurentiis

Say what you will about Peter Jackson, he knows how to deliver a money shot. King Kong's arrives midway through its running time, with a spectacular battle between the titular giant ape and a trio of prehistoric carnosaurs. Kong is fighting to keep ladylove Naomi Watts from becoming a midday snack, and his throw-down, drag-out, rumble-in-the-jungle death match is alternately terrifying, awe-inspiring, and over-the-top funny. Jackson delivers the sequence with the poised confidence that comes from reaching the pinnacle of one's craft, and the assurance of a man who can do absolutely anything he wants.

But there are drawbacks to that position as well as advantages, which the remainder of King Kong makes abundantly clear. For while Jackson has produced a grand and glorious piece of pulp filmmaking, his lack of oversight leads to an unduly bloated running time, an emphasis on superfluous details, and a whiff of pretension that serves the production poorly. Despite their extended lengths, his Lord of the Rings films felt lean and efficient compared to their source. He and fellow screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh stripped the convoluted novels down to their barest essence, keeping only the elements deemed necessary. Here, the exact opposite occurs: they take a spare 100-minute original film and stretch it out to well over three hours, replete with needless exposition, repetitive situations, and one-note characters whose presence does little to enhance the drama. Jackson's immense influence means that no one could say no to him, and the resulting indulgences weigh his efforts down considerably.

Balancing that are many of the strengths that made The Lord of the Rings such a triumph. Jackson and his team show great respect for their source material, and seek to enhance it without diminishing the filmmakers who preceded them. They retain the setting, mood, and endearments of the 1933 film, enhanced with state-of-the art effects that nonetheless retain a key spark of humanity. Like the settings in The Lord of the Rings, everything here has a sense of history: a package of reality that sells us on its authenticity. This is most apparent on Skull Island -- tropical home of Kong, where maverick filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) drags an eclectic group of filmmakers in a last-ditch attempt to salvage his career. We understand at a glance the desperate, savage lives of the human natives there, as well as the brutal, vibrant ecology lying in the jungles beyond their barren village. Topping them all is Kong himself (performed by Andy Serkis in a little something from the "we ain't gonna fix it 'cause it clearly ain't broke" department), whose eyes speak of a harsh, merciless life tinged with loss and sadness. So much feeling and information is conveyed so quickly through the film's spectacular visuals that its undue running time feels all the more unnecessary.

And have no doubts: it takes its time getting going. After pausing to snatch up starving actress Ann Darrow (Watts) from the streets of New York, Denham sets sail in a long, slow, meandering trip to Skull Island, marked by a lot of trite dialogue and aimless exposition. King Kong devotes considerable time to the sailors among the ship's crew, but none of them are particularly interesting, and the fact that we get to know them does nothing to accentuate the messy deaths many of them meet. Similarly, the burgeoning romance between Watts and playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) -- brought along to pen the screenplay for Denham's film -- lack impetus, despite some modest chemistry between the two stars.

The real sparks, as everyone knows, are reserved for Darrow and the gorilla, who rules Skull Island as its Darwinian alpha male. Here King Kong finds its strongest and most poignant thread, as Ann is abducted by the natives and served up to Kong as a sacrifice. She awakens the beast's protective instincts, however, engendering one of the strangest and most famous romances in all of cinema. It starts in the jungle, as Kong keeps her safe from the countless predators that seethe beneath the vines, and continues in New York, where Denham transports a subdued Kong as a bizarre Barnum & Bailey-esque exhibition. Serkis' computer-enhanced performance breathes amazing life into the great ape, capturing both his ferocity and his pathos-laden devotion to his pale blonde paramour. But the film's trump card comes in allowing Ann a measure of reciprocation: letting her bond with her would-be abductor and even endeavoring to protect him once his sojourn in civilization goes catastrophically wrong. The script gives her a nice background as a vaudeville comedian, which allows for some wonderful Chaplinesque touches in her interplay with the ape. Watts herself brings a lovely luminosity to the role, and helps to sell us on the unlikely but ultimately very soulful relationship.

The action sequences are top-notch, of course, arriving mostly during the crew's attempted rescue of Ann on Skull Island and capped by Kong's famous final stand on the Empire State Building. Jackson shows a good sense of showmanship and a bit of his old horror-movie instincts (particularly during a stomach-turning attack by giant creepy-crawlies in the jungle's verdant underbelly). He also plays up the story's renowned themes quite well, emphasizing man's hubris in the face of nature's wonders. Sadly, the hopelessly extended pacing lessens the impact somewhat, and at times Jackson's impulses veer into the ridiculous, leading to several moments of snickers and raised eyebrows. An undue sense of self-importance becomes a hindrance too (Black is fine as the criminally irresponsible Denham, but some of his speeches are too ponderous for his lightweight persona), and the pretense dilutes what should be much more of a romp. But Jackson is still damn good at what he does, and the flaws can't displace the winning entertainment that King Kong ultimately turns out to be. Simply put, the monkey is big enough to carry the load... however ponderous and top-heavy it can get.

Review published 12.13.2005.

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