With ‘Kong,’ Peter Jackson uncages a bold, fascinating new look at an old beast
Director Peter Jackson may be a complex man, but his approach filmmaking is simple: he dives into his task as if it was a Midwestern smorgasbord and doesn’t come up for air until he’s consumed every last morsel of that fifth portion of vanilla bean dessert pudding. And aren’t we all the better for it? Jackson’s work, this decade in particular, is just epic. Who could argue that his Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy took cinema to new heights—all that state-of-the-art digital dancing; the grand achievement of bringing Tolkien’s revered lit to the screen; storytelling, reborn at last, at the cineplex. Marvelous. Give the man awards, and keep feeding him, please. So, it’s a delight to find Jackson behind the lens of Universal’s three-hour-long King Kong, a bold retelling of the classic “ape meets girl, ape loses girl, ape slips on an emotional banana peel and meets his fate in the Big Apple” tale that has captivated audiences since RKO Pictures released the story in 1933. Jackson deserves applause for a variety reasons here, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to personally thank him for eradicating any remaining memory of the 1976 King Kong, a debacle that found the likes of Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges and—oh dear—Charles Grodin making mischief with the original material. Jackson—a man of magic.
That said, King Kong is a remarkable, often heart-pumping ride from beginning to end. The acting is good—save for Jack Black who acts more with his face than anything else here; ditto for Adrien Brody—the digital effects top notch despite several instances where it’s almost rudely apparent special effects were involved, and the story, well, Jackson stays true to formula but doesn’t sway away from super-sizing—literally—some new concepts. Among them: dinosaurs. This is where his King Kong meets Land of the Lost by way of Jurrasic Park. And while Jackson’s digitally animated T. rex sequences are adventurous, the mind cannot help but realize that the beasts are indeed concocted. You never fall into that same trap any time Kong explodes onto the scene—maneuvered by Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame) this beast looks, sounds and is real.
Still, one of the most breathtaking things in King Kong is the performance by Naomi Watts (Mohalland Drive, 21 Grams, the upcoming Ellie Parker). This actress is a rare diamond glistening on any competent director’s hand. She’s Nicole Kidman before Hollywood spit-shined her. Watts morphs into struggling vaudeville actress Ann Darrow here and everything about her performance glistens: the way she widens those big, blue eyes, her breathless screams for survival in the hands of Kong, the innocence she exudes before stepping onto the ship that will alter her life forever. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance, one that the Academy may pass up.
The actual story sets sail during the Depression-era and almost immediately you get the sense that Jackson is a stickler for details. His 1930s New York is fully alive and brilliantly imagined. It’s also thriving and overpopulated. Our Ann struggles to find a good stage role before landing into the shifty hands of film director Carl Denham (Black), who convinces her to star in his movie. Ann’s intrigued. The film was written by one of her favorite writers, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). After a few snafus—and a good 45 minutes—Carl et al set sail for the mysterious Skull Island. Of course, not everybody on the ship or the film crew know that and by the time they reach its shores, I swear you’re watching the The Titanic. Jackson’s detail-oriented mind gives us every nook and porthole of the ship, and every hard-edged rock near the shore. Later, when Ann and company explore what appears to be a temple in ruins, Jackson unleashes a feisty population of natives who look suspiciously like distant cousins of the beasts from Mordor. The natives offer Ann to Kong. Kong is happy to take her. The screenplay—by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and Jackson—finds Ann and Kong bonding during a pleasant sunset after a series of near-death experiences that would have left anyone begging for the afterlife. But Jackson and company also fully take us into Kong’s prehistoric world, where everything is big and, apparently, fully loaded—spiders, insects, creepy-crawlies, swamp things. Dear lord. One can only imagine the critters Jackson parented in his terrarium back in his youth.
Actually, Jackson’s fascination with King Kong began to stew—and good—when was 12. Using the gorilla’s fur from one of his mother’s old garments, he covered a padded wire-frame body he’d created. He had just given birth to first stop-motion King Kong figurine. Later, he painted a cardboard model of the top of the Empire State Building and began filming. Not bad. Apparently that sort of drive was good enough to make him king of the box office.
*** 1/2 (out of four)
With Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis as Kong. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13. 180 minutes.