(PG-13) 4 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Darrow (Naomi Watts) shares a quiet moment at sunrise with Kong atop the Empire State Building, whose heights he has scaled in his flight from the streets of New York City.

You're going to hear a lot of gushing about the new Peter Jackson version of King Kong over the next few days. You'll hear that the ape looks fantastic, and he does. You'll hear that the action scenes are spectacular, and they are. You'll hear that the story brings tears to the eyes, and I heard some sniffling at the screening I attended. You'll even hear some call the film a masterpiece, which is highly arguable.

King Kong is impressive as hell and I'll do my share of raving in a bit, but first I have a few quibbles with the production. Quibble 1: This is quite possibly the most self-indulgent movie ever made. Do I need to climb a skyscraper and shout it from the top? The new King Kong is slightly over three hours long. Three hours! The original 1933 production told the story in one hour and 40 minutes. Quite memorably, too, I hasten to remind you.

Peter Jackson loved the original, so much that it made him want to make movies of his own. He used his clout as the man behind the three remarkable Lord of the Rings movies to get the project green-lighted. He felt the need to do a remake because of his belief that "your average teen-age kid today just isn't interested in black and white films anymore. So I thought it's a very good time to do a remake of Kong that can preserve everything that I loved about the original."

Indeed, Jackson sticks very close to the original. So why does he take 188 minutes to tell a 100-minute story? Embellishments. In the original Kong, sensationalistic filmmaker Carl Denham finds Ann Darrow, his leading lady to be, as she gets accused of stealing a piece of fruit. In Jackson's version, we get Ann's back story, including a number from her vaudeville act.

In the original Kong, the ship heading off to God-knows-where was filled with lugs. In Jackson's version, we get to know a few of the lugs. Sure, when several of the men die on Skull Island while trying to rescue poor kidnapped Ann, it packs more of an impact in this version due to our familiarity with them. I wonder, though, was that Jackson's reason for adding the characters and their mini-stories, or did he just throw it all in because he could?

There are numerous other examples of needless embellishments, but I won't cite them because I would hate for this essay to become bloated and wearying. Ahem.

Quibble 2: You want to talk about overkill? Wait until you see Jackson's depiction of the relationship between Ann Darrow and Kong. While I loved the new interpretation of Ann (smarter and more assertive, with far less screaming) and the mutual affection between her and the great ape, did we need so much of it? Wait until you see Kong and Ann playfully slipping and sliding on a frozen lake. Talk about wince-inducing.

Quibble 3: Jack Black doesn't work in the role of reckless filmmaker Carl Denham. As played in the original by Robert Armstrong, Denham was a man driven by his need to capture the next great image. Black's Denham, as written by Jackson, is just a skuzzy little hustler.

Quibble 4: James Newton Howard contributes an impressive score, except for early in the film, when he offers cutesy musical accents for some comic moments. Too Disney, James, too Disney.

Enough quibbles, time for a few huzzahs. Naomi Watts is wonderful as Ann Darrow, which comes as no big surprise. But who would have guessed that casting gangly, hangdog Adrien Brody as her leading man would have worked so well. And congratulations to actor Andy Serkis, the CGI wizards and Jackson for creating a Kong whose personality is as well-defined as his appearance.

Universal Studios' contract with Jackson mandated that the finished film be no longer than two and a half hours. King Kong would have been a better movie if they had held him to it. That said, Peter Jackson's homage to his childhood favorite is a real corker. I'd add more adjectives, but I don't want to be indulgent.


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