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King Kong

We stand by this rule: monkeys are funny. Sometimes they can be touching and poignant as well. Keeping this in mind, you might consider a twenty-five foot tall (at least) monkey to be exponentially more entertaining than your standard-sized monkey. At times, Peter Jackson's King Kong bears out this theory, but then the Oscar-winning director has to keep getting serious about what is, after all, a giant monkey movie.

Sure, the 1932 original had its pathos and its terrors, but it sought above all else to entertain. Jackson's modern remake has that at its heart, too, but somehow he managed to take the sleek classic and weigh it down, almost doubling its length.

Unlike the 1976 version, this Kong doesn't bother updating, instead keeping everything that made the original work. At the height of the Great Depression, filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) needs an actress for his latest picture - one that not even he quite understands. He finds the starving actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), stealing an apple from a vendor on the streets of New York.

With film crew and ship crew, they set out for the lost Skull Island to capture the adventure of a lifetime. Of course, what they get is…oh, dammit, get to the big ape already...

It takes Jackson at least forty minutes to get there, and though lushly shot by Andrew Lesnie, this first act drags. We're in an age where audiences apparently need backstory completely spelled out, so screenwriters Jackson, Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh take the time to explain how both Darrow and Denham reached the state they're in for their fateful meeting.

Casting Black alone should have been enough to explain that Denham has charisma but is terribly annoying. Nor should we see Ann have to sink to those depths of desperation; it is, after all, the Great Depression.

The backstory does, however, provide Ann with a link to the writer, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Let us treasure a film that makes the writer the hero, adored by young actresses desperate to speak his words. Thankfully, the screenplay also acknowledges that Brody has a rather offbeat look, especially when compared to the matinee idol onboard, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler).

Upping the intellectual content, the film also throws in a subplot involving Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The conceit feels a little too on the nose, but though it goes nowhere, the diversion serves to keep the crewmembers from being faceless as they get their faces eaten by the terrors of the island.

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Yes, everything that thrilled and terrified audiences in 1932 has returned with a vengeance. Jackson takes every classic Kong beat, feeds it steroids and then turns it up to eleven, but convincingly so. Unlike the Jurassic Park films, there is no time to ponder how this might adapt to a videogame. You're too busy wondering how long your pulse can pound like this.

Where Meriam C. Cooper's stop-motion Kong battled a tyrannosaurus rex, the new King Kong (Andy Serkis) has to battle three. In another part of the forest, we get a full-on dinosaur stampede.

Then there's those creepy crawlies, an incident teased and taunted in several other scenes as Jackson lays out furtive glimpses of legs and claws. The original spider sequence was deemed too horrific. Supposedly, audiences of 2005 are made out of sterner stuff. Yet Jackson's take is so disgusting you might just forget to breathe for the duration of it. Worse, he stages it in almost complete silence, which makes it one of the most uneasy (in a good way) sequences on film this year.

In fact, Jackson dares let a lot of this film go by without dialogue. It helps when your lead cannot actually speak and is still so incredibly well-acted by a brilliant physical performer like Serkis. The CG work completely covers the man in the motion-capture suit, leaving only the perfect illusion of a giant ape, albeit one in love with a stunning blonde. (And that's strangely believable, too.) King Kong is an outstanding achievement.

Serkis appears in a secondary role as the ship's cook, and in both capacities seems remarkably restrained. Despite the possible temptation, King Kong chews on giant plants, not the scenery.

Most of the actors throw themselves into a more evocative performance style. Though the screenplay tries to give the characters historical realism, the acting style has the earnestness of the thirties. Brody and Chandler both have moments of old-time leading man charisma, and Watts just seems born to the ephemeral glamour of the era.

Though an understandable choice, the casting of Black seems a little off. Perhaps the actor is just too closely tied to his persona. He tries to be calmer than usual, but Jackson still elicits a manic edge from him that was possibly meant to be intensity. Black also seems too callow for the role; Denham is a weasel that has been around, and despite some bags under his eyes, Black looks more like a slacker barely pushed into adulthood.

The good outweighs the bad. The giant monkey rocks, and even in an adventure story, Jackson understands what scares people, but without pushing it too far. (Sharp-eyed fans will spot the homage to Jackson's own zombie film, Dead Alive.)

A satisfying B-Movie, King Kong wants to be something more. Somebody needs to remind Jackson that sometimes there's nothing wrong with just making a damned good entertainment, especially when you've got a giant monkey.


Derek McCaw

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