Joyride comes before a fall

'King Kong' stands tall as a monumental achievement.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

After completing the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Peter Jackson was quoted as saying that he wanted to recuperate and do something small. Yeah, right.

"King Kong," starring Jack Black as scamp showman Carl Denham and Naomi Watts as that blond bundle of shrieks, Ann Darrow, is the biggest big movie since "Titanic." It's certainly the biggest romance, even if it happens to be an interspecies one.

The romantic angle is, in fact, what largely differentiates this film from the classic 1933 version directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Certainly Jackson's visual effects, courtesy of his Oscar-winning Weta Workshop, are more technologically advanced, but in its day the original Kong was equally eye-popping. The major shift here is that, unlike the original, Jackson's remake is conceived in sweepingly romantic terms. When it comes to Kong and Ann Darrow, Jackson really wants us to feel the love.

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He also wants us to feel the glop. Let it not be forgotten that Jackson began his career making mega gross-out comedies such as "Bad Taste" and "Dead Alive." Remember the orcs in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy? Jackson's movies, even "Heavenly Creatures," have always been horror films of a sort, and his new movie is no exception. After a rather slow build-up - it takes almost an hour until we make it to Skull Island - "King Kong" becomes "Jurassic Park" on steroids. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly referred to "Dead Alive" and "Braindead" as titles of two different movies. They are the same movie, renamed for different countries.]

The plot overall is quite similar to the original "Kong." Ann, a struggling actress in Depression-era Manhattan, is picked by Denham as a last-minute replacement to star in his jungle epic. The tramp steamer that delivers the director, along with his cast and crew, from the clutches of his financiers is supposedly bound for Singapore, but his sights are set on something distinctly more off-map. Crashing into Skull Island during a heavy storm, it's not long before all on board are mesmerized by the heavy tom-toms of the creepazoid locals who intend to offer up Ann to Kong as a tasty tidbit. (Jackson skirts the original film's ooga-booga political incorrectness by essentially turning the natives into zombies.)

Once Ann is, literally, in the palm of the big ape, the pursuit to save her begins. Most intrepid of the rescuers is screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who loves Ann but can't really compete with the studly silverback. Along with Denham and a rapidly diminishing band of stalwarts, Jack endures a stampede by a variety-pack of dinosaurs - why have one T-Rex when you can have three? - and a cavern filled with creepy crawlies that specialize in cranium swallowing. For starters.

What chiefly characterized Jackson's early ghoul movies was their bizarro humor - he filmed our worst "gross me out" fantasies and made us laugh at how awful they really were. The epic scale of "King Kong" seems to have dampened Jackson's sicko wit.

What hasn't been dampened is the yeccch factor, which is very high. Nothing is left to the imagination, which is a comedown from the original, which had a marvelously suggestive primitivism as well as images derived from Gustave Doré. After a while, Jackson's grand-scale ghoulishness becomes numbing. Bigger isn't always better.

Still, there's no denying the monumentality of Jackson's achievement, which intermittently lives up to Denham's showbiz credo: "Magic for the price of a ticket." And although the eyebrow-wriggling antics of Jack Black seem pretty puny amidst all this hoo-ha, the scenes between Kong and Ann are much more than a goof: They're the soul of the movie. When she first is taken up by him and does a little vaudeville jig to distract him from gobbling her, the moment is ineffably charming. And when, through her eyes, she pours out her love for Kong as he battles the biplanes atop the Empire State Building, you can almost believe that some day these two will have a rosy future together in some vast Valhalla. Grade: B+

Rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images.

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