Running seven minutes past three hours, Peter Jackson’s blockbuster remake of “King Kong” is nearly twice as long as the 1933 original. In this case, fortunately, more really is more. Instead of bloat, it offers a boldly personal re-imagining of a fantasy classic.
The movie somehow manages to be both intensely faithful to the first film and a witty, muscular commentary on it. This is, above all, Jackson’s “King Kong,” a labor of love that asks the audience to see the story through his eyes. No other filmmaker could or would do what he has done with the material.
He’s kept the basic story, about an obsessed 1930s filmmaker-adventurer, Carl Denham (Jack Black in devilish con-man mode), who hires a blonde victim of the Depression, Ann Darrow (an inspired Naomi Watts), to perform in his latest movie, which will be shot on the godforsaken Skull Island.
The fear-driven natives capture Ann and sacrifice her to a giant ape (once dubbed “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”), who falls for her and does battle with various dinosaurs and her boyfriend, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Eventually Kong is subdued and taken to New York, where he’s promoted as “the eighth wonder of the world.” He promptly rips off his chains and tears the city apart.
Jackson has taken this mayhem-driven tall tale and given it a more human dimension, fleshing out the supporting characters (Jamie Bell’s cabin boy steals each of his scenes) and playing up the perverse affection that develops between Kong and Ann — a much more athletic creature than Fay Wray’s non-stop screamer from the 1933 film.
Watts’ Ann rides a dinosaur like a rodeo star, shows off a Tarzan-like ability to swing through the jungle on conveniently placed vines, and demonstrates her independence from Denham by refusing to exploit Kong. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, provides body language for Kong that is more convincing and much smoother than the stop-motion puppet of the original.
While the 1933 film was a special-effects breakthrough, and it still has considerable charm, the dinosaurs and humans seem to exist in separate spaces; the actors look like they’re watching the prehistoric giants projected on a screen. Not so in Jackson’s version. The camera twirls and leaps and bends as humans interact with dinosaurs, insects, slug-like monsters and the fast-moving Kong.
Although Jackson’s version is rated PG-13, it’s clearly the work of the same filmmaker who made the 1992 New Zealand horror show, “Dead/Alive,” which was rated NC-17 for its abundant gore. Yet for every nightmarish gross-out in “Kong,” there’s a funny or tender moment that suggests how much he’s matured as an artist since then.
It may take the form of an affectionate acknowledgment of the first film (Max Steiner’s 1933 score turns up in an amusingly different context), or an understanding look between Ann and Kong, or a loaded discussion of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as the voyagers approach Skull Island. Even at this length, Jackson’s movie never runs out of ideas.