Proving yet again that size does matter, Peter Jackson's King Kong is going to clobber the competition this holiday season ' the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. Make that 8,000-pound gorilla. Budgeted at over $200 million, lasting over three hours and featuring what used to be called a cast of thousands but is now called the latest digital software, this remake of the classic 1933 jungle flick is working on a scale undreamed of by the folks who manipulated an 18-inch-high fur-covered steel puppet. For its time, the original Kong was truly the Eighth Wonder of the World, a landmark in the early history of special effects. But Jackson's creation is even more impressive, a mass of twinkling pixels that gives one of the best performances of the year without uttering a single line of dialogue other than "RRRROOOOAAAAARRR"
Unfortunately, we don't get to see Kong until at least an hour has gone by. Cashing in the chips he accumulated while turning out the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has indulged himself in the gradual unfolding of what the 1933 version couldn't wait to get out of the way ' the early scenes in New York and the boat ride to Skull Island. Once again, a monomaniacal film director (Jack Black) has conned a cast and crew into setting sail for points unknown, the movie to be made (and made up) as they go along. And once again, a Blonde Venus (Naomi Watts) gets hired off the streets at the last moment ' the beauty who will soothe the savage beast. But Jackson, after an opening-credits sequence that promises more than the movie can deliver, gets bogged down with storylines that, truth be told, most of us don't care about.
And why should we? There's nothing to them. Black's Carl Denham is the kind of guy who would walk all over his grandmother to get the right light for his next shot, and you can sense Black trying to do something with the role, find the right angle. But there are no angles. Denham's exactly the same at the end of the movie as at the beginning: monomaniacal. Plus, Jackson reportedly reined Black in, which begs the question of why he hired him in the first place. This is a guy who's at his best as a merry prankster, the life as well as the death of the party. Here, he's just the death. Adrien Brody, as the boy who gets the girl after the gorilla's through with her, fares no better. A rather receding actor, he has no business playing the romantic lead in a love story where the chief competition can take on three ' count 'em, three ' T. rexes at the same time.
That leaves Watts' Ann Darrow, the role so identified with Fay Wray that other actresses seem like interlopers. Shot in extreme close-up, so that her face seems almost as large as Kong's, Watts has the twin poles of the role down: She's absolutely stunning to look at, and she's capable of screaming like a banshee that's just seen a 25-foot-tall ghost. Luckily, she's a genuine actress, and she gives a richer, fuller performance than Wray did, which isn't saying much. In fact, the love scenes ' what else are we to call them? ' between Ann and Kong are just about the best thing in the movie, threaded with delicate emotional shadings. As he did for the Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Andy Serkis provided many of the movements for Kong, serving as both choreographer and performer. I'm not sure exactly how much credit to assign him, but this definitely isn't your standard man-in-a-gorilla-suit.
Upon arrival at the island, just at the moment when I was tapping my watch to make sure the hands were moving, King Kong suddenly kicks into gear, hurtling toward a conclusion that's still two hours away. First, there's a meet-and-greet with natives who seem less restless than listless, at least until they get a look at the human sacrifice who has conveniently washed ashore. The 1933 tribe was a laundry list of racist stereotypes ' everything but the bone in the nose. Jackson not only repeats the list, he adds to it via wet, stringy hair, piercings and a kind of Maori cast to the face that he may have picked up in his native New Zealand. Suitably fierce, the tribespeople look like Orcs that have been left out in the rain. And once they perform their duties, offering Miss Darrow up to the gorilla in their mist, they disappear, never to be heard from again.
The jungle sequence, which consists of battles with one prehistoric critter after another, is the roller-coaster ride we've all been waiting for, a series of set-pieces that belong up there with the finest green-screen work ever done. But Jackson can't seem to get enough, restoring the spider-pit episode that got dropped from the original, only now they aren't spiders, they're a vat of creepy crawlers that risk turning King Kong into a mere creature feature. Meanwhile, Beauty and the Beast are trying to turn it into a tragic love story. Watts is so radiant and Kong is so expressive that it's tempting to say they get the job done, but Jackson simply won't quit with the critters ' brontosaurs, pterodactyls, velociraptors and enough T. rexes to start your own petting zoo. It's like watching Romeo and Juliet performed in Jurassic Park.
Back in New York City, our star-crossed lovers go skating in Central Park (improbably charming) and prepare for their rendezvous with destiny atop the Empire State Building. Setting the movie in 1933 allows Jackson to re-create the Big Apple at one of its juiciest moments, when the skyscrapers were zigzagging their way to Art Deco heaven. And the reconstruction work is nothing short of astounding ' a teeming metropolis built from the ground up. But you have to wonder why Jackson didn't update this 20th-century myth to the 21st century. Doesn't he think it has anything to say about the way we live now? New Yorkers in particular may experience a twinge when Kong, from his perch above what was once the world's tallest building, swats at airplanes. But there's no indication Jackson even made the connection.
For him, King Kong appears to be an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to pass on to a younger generation the sense of awe he felt as a child watching a hairy ape with an overactive pituitary gland add his two cents to the case for Darwinian evolution. (Miss Darrow is surely named for Clarence Darrow, the lawyer for the defense in the Scopes trial.) And in this, he may have succeeded. His version is, in its own digitized way, as wondrous as the 1933 version. Yes, it pounds on us for three hours. But it also contains moments of rare, delicate beauty, when a creature that's used to tearing dinosaurs limb from limb performs gestures so gently that it nearly breaks your heart. When Kong first sees Ann, strung up for his delectation, he reaches out and lovingly fingers her golden tresses. Let's hear it for the opposable thumb.