By Vic Holtreman
Short version: When it's good, it's very good, but when it's not, it feels really, REALLY long.
Watching Peter Jackson's version of King Kong, it is abundantly clear that the man feels as strongly about the original 1933 film as he did about Tolkein's Lord of the Rings books. One can really feel how earnestly he guided this film, paying homage to the original while expanding on it more than just a little bit. Unfortunately the "expansion" is one of the problems with the movie, but I'll get to that in a bit.
I don't suppose I really need to go into the story itself, but there are a few changes from and additions to this version when compared to the 1933 film. Here, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is shown to be a stage performer at the outset of the film, basically doing Vaudeville shows during the Great Depression in order to make a living. Time is spent up front showing the state of things in New York City in regards to the struggle to survive in that devastating economic downturn (to great effect). We meet her co-perfomers, a tight-knight little family including an elderly gentleman who passes for a father figure for her, and we get to know at least Ann and this gentleman well enough in the few early minutes of the film to really feel for them when the theater where they perform is unceremoniously closed down.
Cut to Carl Denham (played by an unusually subdued Jack Black) in a meeting with "money men", trying to pitch his movie-in-progress and get more money to go shoot on location at the mysterious island indicated on a map which has just come into his possession. He is portrayed as a man with a vision throwing his cinematic pearls before monied, but ignorant swine. The financiers have already sunk $40,000 into his picture (big bucks back then) and decide to cut their losses and sell off what Jack has filmed so far as stock footage.
Jack overhears this and decides to take off with the existing rolls of film plus all the camera equipment to make the movie anyway, despite the loss of his leading actress and all financing. In a manner very similar to the original film he finds Ann, although here it takes a bit more convincing to talk her into joining him. There's a funny throwaway line in there about his being trustworthy because he's a movie producer. 8)
He talks his way onto the ship despite the Captain not trusting him and also wrangles playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) into coming along in order to finish the only partially done screenplay. It turns out that the only reason Ann decided to come along was because Driscoll was writing the film and she was a big fan of his plays. So one major difference is that instead of a lowly sailor, Driscoll is a well known and sophisticated playwright. We're also introduced to Hayes (Evan Parke, who seems to play a role closer to that of the original Driscoll) and Jimmy (Jamie Bell) as a young former stowaway out to prove himself.
Finally, we find ourselves out to sea and on the way to the island. It took a very long time to get to this point and we also spend what seemed to me to be an inordinate amount of time getting to Skull Island. Peter Jackson took a while developing the relationship between Jack and Ann in order to make it more real for the audience. The problem is that a lot of that effort went to support nothing more than Jack's determination to not leave Ann behind. The real relationship in this movie is between Ann and Kong (some of you reading this, don't even go there).
Fortunately, while a lot of time is spent showing the development of the Kong/Ann relationship, it is time well-spent. Andy Serkis (the actor whose expressions/movement is behind the CGI Kong) did a phenomenal job (as did the animators) of making Kong real. Much like the original filmmakers, the idea here was that the more fearsome Kong was at the beginning of the film, the more we would feel upon his death. King Kong and Naomi Watts really stole the show here, no question.
The time spent on screen showing the both of them was a joy to watch. The process of the relationship changing from fear and curiousity to geniune caring and concern was completely believable. However when the action shifted to the rest of the crew, things did start to drag. Although the effects were spectacular, there did come times where I found myself thinking "isn't this scene over yet?". With a remake of such an iconic film, one cannot help but make comparisons, and many times throughout the film I asked myself why this one took three hours to tell the same story the original did so effectively in half that time.
Strangely, the one character that I thought was going to be closest to the original was Carl Denham, and he really wasn't. I actually would have preferred to see Jack Black tap into some of his over the top energy to portray Denham more like the barely supressed carnival barker that Robert Armstrong played in 1933. Jack just never worked for me, but not for the reasons I had expected going in. I think it was more due to Peter Jackson's take on the character than the acting itself. This Denham was more "human", yes, but he didn't strike me as the kind of man that would have the sheer force of will required to bring back the great King Kong.
Towards the end of the film, the scene where Kong is introduced to the paying audience was quite well done and effective, right through to where he escapes his bonds and rampages in Times Square. There is a new sequence in this film showing how Kong calms down once he finds Ann, and how they go off and reconnect like old friends until their peace is shattered by the military coming after Kong.
Of course they eventually end up at the top of the Empire State Building, but here again, things seem to go on longer than they need to just for the sake of more screen time with Kong and special effects. When it does come down to the end and Jackson focuses in once more on the characters it does all come together once more, except for two things: The weakly delivered "It was beauty done killed the beast." by Jack Black, and the final scene between Kong and Naomi Watts which looked like it was lifted straight from the end of Titanic.
Final notes: CGI effects, especially for Kong were flawless. I did not for a second think I was looking at a CGI creation. The scenes on the island with the natives might be too intense for the 7 and under crowd... some of them looking REALLY creepy and in extreme close ups that even creeped me out a bit.
All in all a really good movie that could have been a great movie if it had 30 minutes or so trimmed from it. Of course the DVD version will probably be 4 hours long and will no doubt suffer for it.