Film: Jungle Boogie

Peter Jackson's King Kong is the most extravagant B movie in history

Dec 14, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Weta Digital LTD

Big love now: Kong and Naomi Watts share a tender moment.

As endangered heroine Anne Darrow, freckly beauty Naomi Watts shrieks on cue, just when the biggest and scariest jungle monsters join her onscreen. A good bone-rattling scream like the ones Watts delivers throughout New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson's rollercoaster of an adventure, his overstuffed remake of King Kong, needs no computer-generated boost to be effective. They're the only scares that exist on a pure human level in the most extravagant B movie in history.

Jackson's Kong grants every audience wish when it comes to lifelike beasts, exotic locations, period detail and fast action. The missing link is restraint, a realization that too much dazzle can sometimes be a bad thing.

Tough times in Depression-era New York City make it easy for documentary filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) to persuade out-of-work stage actress Darrow (Watts) to board a steamer ship bound for Sumatra for a film shoot. Playwright-turned-scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) becomes an unlikely hero once the ship lands at its true destination, the mysterious Skull Island. The island's natives worship a gargantuan gorilla named Kong, and they offer Darrow as a sacrifice.

A string of death-defying stunts enable Driscoll and the crew to save Darrow and capture Kong. When Denham brings the beast back to New York City to display him as the Eighth Wonder of the World, Kong breaks free and havoc hits the great city.

Kong has fallen for Darrow, and he will tear the town apart to find her.

Willis O'Brien's animated Kong in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1933 movie is stiff and clumsy. The Kong robot in the 1976 update leaked its fluid. But the CGI (computer generated imagery) of Jackson's Kong is flawless.

His straggly fur, smashed nose, battle scars and lopsided jaw are convincing enough to qualify as an acting performance. When it comes to looks of want and desire, the beast is an equal to the beauty.

If there were any doubts after his Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Kong proves Jackson to be the master of the digital domain, the leader among tech-obsessed filmmakers James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. What's in doubt is whether he can tell a story without special effects to hold an audience's attention, whether he can make do with sheer emotion.

Early in Kong, a cabin boy named Jimmy (Jamie Bell) reads Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But the allegory of a doomed mission and an obsessed leader is lost in Kong's constant action. Jackson's film finishes with a monster's death, but the journey to get there is more convoluted than it needs to be.

The best part of the original is its last 30 minutes, when the beauty and her beastly friend meet their fate in Manhattan. But Jackson's remake hits its peak during the crew's jungle escape and the inevitable capture of Kong. Its scenes boast adrenalized action, including a battle with giant bugs an escape on the wings of oversized vampire bats, and Kong's lunging attempt to prevent Darrow's escape to the ship.

This Kong claims a limitless production worthy of a classic movie epic, but it's the same B-picture monster movie Cooper and Schoedsack made more than 70 years ago. As Driscoll, Brody looks the opposite of the typical adventurer with his shaggy dark hair and rail-thin body, and that makes him likable. But Brody is uncomfortable throughout Kong and passionless around Darrow. It's no surprise she is more affectionate toward Kong — at least the ape lets her know how he feels.

Black is a boy let loose in a toy shop as Denham, the man responsible for capturing the beast and bringing him to New York City. Denham is a fast-talker, something of a con man, and Black makes him a comical anti-hero.

The previous objects of Kong's affections run from Fay Wray to Jessica Lange, but Watts is the first to give a performance equal to her beauty. She is believably frightened in all the right places. More importantly, near the film's end, Darrow's trust and affection for Kong feels real.

Andy Serkis deserves marks as the film's hidden actor, the one behind the special-effects screen who acts as Kong and allows the beast to beat his chest believably.

For its time, the original King Kong was unique, and O'Brien's effects work was full of surprises. Jackson's version comes with flawless effects. Then again, nothing less is expected.

The build-up of the steamer ship heading to Skull Island is responsible for the film's monster length and the lulls at its front end. (The original ran 100 minutes; the new Kong is three hours.) Jackson could have made something modest, a film close to his best work, the amazing suspense drama, Heavenly Creatures. Instead he tosses everything into King Kong, and there is little worse than blasé wonderment. Grade: B-