With his auspicious, hugely popular "The Lord of the Rings
" trilogy complete, all eyes are on director Peter Jackson to see if he can make a successful follow-up picture. The answer is yes and no, with an overall emphasis on the former. Jackson's "King Kong," the third film version of the classic tale of a giant ape and the woman he falls in love with (the other two were released in 1933 and 1976), is a state-of-the-art visual and technological triumph, awe-inspiring on several occasions and never short of picturesque. The action set-pieces are outstanding when they come, but are interspersed with a more emotional story that never touches the heart the way Jackson intends. Because of this, the overbloated three-hour running time begins to wear out its welcome by the third act.
The central plot and most of its developments remain close to the goings-on of the 1933 original, which, for what it's worth, still holds up surprisingly well over seventy years later. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling and hungry stage performer in New York City, circa the mid-1930s, who happens upon a chance run-in with movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) just as he is searching for a leading lady for his next project. After some arm-twisting, Ann accepts the job, and soon they and the rest of the crew, including bigheaded action star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), dashing screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and Denham's harried assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), have set sail across the Atlantic in search of a remote island to film on.
Amidst the fog rises the mysterious Skull Island, an initially ideal shooting location that turns into a nightmare for all involved when they are besieged by a group of deadly tribespeople and Ann is kidnapped by the 25-foot ape Kong. Jack, who shared a romantic moment with Ann onboard the ship, refuses to leave without her. The group's desperate search turns all the more treacherous when they discover an ancient ecosystem of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures that have never gone extinct. Meanwhile, Ann's own fear for her life gradually lessens as she forms an unexpected connection with Kong, a lonely, albeit wild and possessive, soul who protects her when a gang of Tyrannosaurs come calling.
"King Kong" is a lavish, high-octane epic with an enormous budget of close to $200-million, every cent of which shows up on the screen. Director Peter Jackson may have set a new standard here in visual effects advancements, with Kong and the various dinosaurs on display taking on an amazingly detailed photorealism that rarely, if ever, looks like a computer-generated image. The authentic movements of Kong (played by Andy Serkis before the post-production effects work) and the authenticity of his lifelike hair are the keys to making him come alive as a character that seems wholeheartedly real. As for the extended and complex action sequences in the middle hour set on Skull Island, they are rousing and exuberant and take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that allows them to excel past being derivative of the "Jurassic Park
" series. The battle between Kong, Ann, and the Tyrannosaurs, leading to a literally cliffhanging moment among hanging vines, might possibly take your breath away, while another scene where the crew out to save her must dodge a stampede of Apatosaurs is just as stunningly vivid. The entire second act, in fact, never lets up; it's one of the most astonishing action sequences ever put on film, and it goes on for almost a whole hour.
Alas, the heightened energy and nonstop chaos of this section leaves the viewer worn out, and what has come before and what follows simply cannot equal it. At three hours, "King Kong" is overlong by a third, with a lot of extraneous material and supporting characterswet-behind-the-ears ship crew member Jimmy (Jamie Bell) comes instantly to mindthat could have, and should have, been cut by screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to tighten the screws of the plot. With Kong not making his first appearance until the 70-minute mark, the first act takes far too long for the characters to reach Skull Island. In addition, as the visit to the island winds down, it feels as if the movie should be, too. Alas, there is another whole hour left to go, with Kong being transported to Manhattan and turned into an imprisoned performer billed as "The Eighth Wonder of the World!" and then escaping out into the cityscape in search of Ann. It all becomes just a tad too much to handle; director Peter Jackson would have been wise to realize that less would have been more this time around.
The other significant problem with the length is the unavoidable sense that Jackson was aiming to mount the next "Titanic." Because of this, he makes an effort to develop his main characters beyond what is necessary, and finally introduces a sort of quasi-love triangle between Ann, Jack and Kong that feels strained and artificial. Jack, played forgettably by Adrien Brody (2004's "The Village
"), never exceeds one dimension, nor does his zero-chemistry romance with Ann. More time is spent focusing on the unlikely relationship between Ann and Kong, and while there are some sweet individual moments, such as when they watch the sunset together or, later, skate on an icy pond in Central Park, Jackson can never quite pull off the star-crossed connection of this beauty and beast pairing. The already iconic finale set atop the Empire State Building bites off more than it can chew; while as visually impressive as the rest of the film, its intended tragic lyricism ultimately left me indifferent.
The only standout performance in the cast is Naomi Watts (2005's "The Ring Two
"), who enlivens Ann Darrow with a troubled humanism and sweet vulnerability that makes her much more than just a damsel in distress. Constantly running, jumping, and being tossed around in Kong's hand, the role could have only been a physically exhausting one for Watts, and she sells her every moment. As intense, decidedly pompous movie producer Carl Denham, Jack Black (2003's "School of Rock
") is miscast. Black is a comedic genius, but if his work here is any indication, his dramatic chops are lacking. The rest of the supporting actors, from Colin Hanks (2002's "Orange County
") to Jamie Bell (2004's "Undertow
"), have little to do and, thus, make little impression.
As a seamless marvel of live-action and special effects, "King Kong" is in a class all its own, and worth recommending for that fact alone. The action scenes are of a top-caliber variety, pulsating with inventiveness and more thrills than can be counted. As an emotional journey through the offbeat love story between a woman and primate, however, the picture is more inert than soaring, played out on a surface level that never takes flight. At a faster and less pretentious two hours, "King Kong" would have stood as one of the year's most noteworthy achievements. At 188 minutes, the film is more affectionately ambitious than it is consistently successful. "King Kong" has a welcome heart to go along with its razzle-dazzle, but it is a heart that alternates between hot and cold.