You won't see a more entertaining movie this year than King Kong (which opens Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Neptune and other theaters). Peter Jackson achieves just the right balance between dazzling computer effects and oversize storytelling (never letting the former dictate the latter), but who could've predicted that Kong would also be such an affecting hold-me-close date movie? Spoiler alert: In a radical departure from the original ending, Kong and his actress bride, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), live happily ever after in the suburbs—except for the occasional burden of having to appear in sequels like Guess Who's Swinging to Dinner (about meeting her parents) and Kong: Cheaper by the Dozen (about their wacky child-raising experiences). But I kid Mr. Jackson, who already has his Oscars for Lord of the Rings and is now probably entertaining offers to remake Ben-Hur, Birth of a Nation, and Gone With the Wind.
The three-hour Kong may not quite be in that league, nor does its stand-alone structure or range of characters match his LOTR sweep. Which is fine, because you only need to care about two characters in this thrilling must-see love story: Watts' starving showgirl and the CGI creation of Kong (acted inside the digital framework by Andy Serkis, as he did Gollum before). It's a romance between the most unlikely couple this side of Brokeback Mountain.
Kong's story is as familiar as myth: During the Great Depression, maverick filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) enlists Ann, screenwriter Jack (Adrien Brody), and his ship's crew to make an ethno-adventure-feature on uncharted Skull Island, where the natives seek to propitiate the simian monster by sacrificing the golden-haired actress. You've got your beauty, your beast, your treacherous jungle, and your tragic rendezvous atop the Empire State Building—surefire drama, in other words. Otherwise, Brody has no role other than to be the sensitive guy, the Baxter waiting in the wings. In the film's early, lighter reels, Black is funny enough, but its inevitably sad conclusion puts him way out of his depth. (Everybody else on board is basically fodder waiting to be eaten, trampled, or dismembered, like the red-shirt guys on Star Trek.)
WITH Kong, Jackson essentially assumes the fun-movie-spectacular mantle from Steven Spielberg, who's lately turned from popcorn flicks to Holocaust allegories (War of the Worlds) and Middle Eastern politics (Munich, reviewed next week). Much of the movie plays like Jurassic Park crossed with those bloodthirsty cultists Indiana Jones met in the Temple of Doom. The stampeding dinosaurs, carnivorous bats, and insect armada of Skull Island are exciting enough, and they're just bit players next to Kong (who doesn't appear for over an hour—Jackson dawdles both on Broadway and at sea; you wish he were more impatient, like Denham).
The movie fully respects the 1933 original (see related article) while also yanking it into the age of Xbox 360. It's an epic of the upgrade era: I predict kids will demand new platforms to play the director-approved game and their parents will purchase wall-size TVs to appreciate the DVD next year. The amazing effects—Kong, various vicious dinosaurs, and man-size, man-eating bugs—aren't "state of the art," they're a statement of the artist, Jackson, and his underlings at New Zealand's Weta Workshop. He's saying that this is the way big-budget fantasy movies are going to be made from now on, inside a PC, and that's mostly a good thing. Except that only a few privileged characters, like Frodo in LOTR, stand out from the digital droves. And except that Jackson is so eager and willing to provide vid- game-ready episodes—shoot the giant bugs! Outrun the dinos! Battle the natives! Cling to the log Kong shakes over the gorge! Slalom the steamer through dangerous rocks!—that I found myself asking, Dude, where's my joystick?
As a remake, Kong simply can't be as fresh or overwhelming as LOTR or Star Wars, but I'm glad it's a one-shot colossus for Jackson. No sequels means that we can better appreciate this one specific doomed romance. At first, Watts' plucky vaudevillian must literally perform or die to please her captor, and he, one tough crowd of a gorilla, ends up hooting at her pratfalls. In a later touching scene, Ann begins to teach him sign language, thumping her heart to signify "beautiful." But what really bonds them is his shy protectiveness—he's embarrassed to be thanked, unaccustomed to the soft caress. A long sequence of his defending her from a nasty series of dinos concludes with a jaw-dropping drop into a vine-filled chasm where predators and prey swing and sway. It's beyond gaming, beyond Jackson's childhood infatuation with the original Kong. It transmutes that monkey love into something grand and spectacular that only movies—seen in a big theater, with lots of people sitting together—can accomplish. It reminds us there's still such a thing as communal awe.
This is why the climactic Empire State scenes achieve such poignancy. Kong is finally revealed to be a misunderstood monster, like Gollum in LOTR, only his soul is pure and uncorrupted. He's a Rousseauian being, the antithesis to the zombielike island cultists (who resemble so many Rastafarian orcs). Serkis previously helped show the lingering humanity, or hobbitry, inside Gollum. Kong's accomplishment goes deeper: The fur and simian motion are perfect, the alternating rage and gentleness credible, the eyes wonderfully expressive; and without his speaking a single word of dialogue, you believe in Kong completely as a sympathetic character. If he is bad, the movie argues, it is only because we savages—on both Manhattan and Skull Island—have made him that way.