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Movie Review - King Kong

December 13th, 2005

King Kong is a movie that captures the spirit of the original, will leave you laughing at the sheer audacity of its action sequences, and features surprisingly moving onscreen chemistry between its two leads. Peter Jackson tries to have it both ways, creating a fable about man's careless destruction of beauty in a movie that has the biggest, loudest, most over-the-top action sequences you will ever see. Thanks to a magnificent ape, he gets away with it.

The three hour extravaganza follows the plot of the 1933 original fairly closely, but more importantly, gloriously celebrates the spirit of that movie, aiming to astonish and engage the audience in equal measure. While it could probably have lost 30 minutes without significant harm, no-one could call it plodding.

The movie starts in New York, with movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the game as his backers lose confidence in his ability to deliver anything more interesting than "stock footage." Recruiting down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), playwrite Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), egotistical leading man Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and a motley assortment of film makers and sailors, he sets off for the mythical Skull Island armed only with a map of uncertain origin.

The journey to Skull Island gives the writers (Jackson is joined once more by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) a chance to develop the characters.

It's one of the moviedom's greatest cliches that if five people land on an island filled with monsters, and four of them are the main characters in the movie, the life expentancy of the fifth member of the party is about 3 minutes. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the cliche, the writers spend quite some time giving the characters depth. They could, and probably should, have stuck to the cliche, and saved 15 minutes of exposition.

On the other hand, one of the great strengths of the team's Tolkein adaptation was that every creature you encountered, no matter how fantastical, had a back story. A family, a culture, somewhere they ate, slept or did their skull cleaving. And that history was deftly told with a subtle reference via a broach, or a banner hanging in the background, adding a richness to the movie that bore multiple viewings.

Unlike the crew of the ship, the denizens of Skull Island aren't granted that priviledge. They do at least come off better than the natives in the original, but one doesn't get a sense of a real culture (no matter how brutal).

One thing that is made clear, however, is why the natives have decided to live on one corner of Skull Island, behind a gigantic and evil-looking wall. Because, when the the adventurers get to the other side, all hell breaks loose.

There's always a danger that a massive success will lead to a director over-indulging themselves in their next movie. And here Peter Jackson is let loose on material that allows him to indulge his brimming imagination to the full. The action sequences on Skull Island almost defy description. Dinosaurs large and small cause peril at every turn, and seeming safe havens are inevitably populated by creepies of preposterous crawliness.

The genius of the technical team, and Jackson's unabated glee in building tension and scaring the living daylights out of you make extraordinary entertainment. And a massive budget has allowed them to make an almost continous action sequence that lasts seemingly forever. A grown-up audience will have a ball, but it's certainly not for younger viewers.

The original movie's significance, perhaps, is that it was a culmination of the idea that what you can depict in movies is ultimately limited only by the imagination of the movie makers. But until now, the audience had to bring their own imagination to the theater, in order to overcome limitations in the special effects. The significance of the new King Kong may be that imagination is no longer necessary. The CGI effects in King Kong are perfect. In the case of King Kong himself, there wasn't a single second where I felt like I was watching a computer simulation.

This is in stark contrast to Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In that case you were blown away by the brilliance of the effect. This time, you don't even notice there's a special effect there.

This is a technical triumph for the folks at Weta Digital, but also another example of the genius of Andy Serkis (who, incidentally, also has a cameo as Lumpy the Cook). Kong is the most expressive, and (intentionally, I'm sure) the most human character in the whole movie. Serkis' performance is what lifts the movie above cornball cliche.

In this, he is (mostly) brilliantly supported by Naomi Watts. Her Fay Wray... excuse me, Ann Darrow is, of course, the romantic center of the movie. And her chemistry with (let us not forget) a computer animation is quite remarkable.

Jack Black, meanwhile, simply relishes his role as the ever-scheming Denham. He would probably steal the movie, if it wasn't so overwhelming already.

As the final reel unrolls, in a beautifully envisioned 1930's New York, it's clear Jackson has created another winner. In an industry over-burdened with effects-laden movies, he seems to revel more than anyone in the sheer joy of what technology allows him to do. The studio probably gave him too much of a free rein, and the movie is 30 minutes too long, but that's like a third helping of turkey—forgivable once a year.

- Bruce Nash

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