King Kong
New Line
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrian Brody, and Andy Serkis
Rated PG-13

There are stories that demand three or more hours of film to tell them. Any of the three Lord of the Rings films would fit into this category. King Kong doesn’t. The truth is, Peter Jackson could have and should have lost at least 30 minutes from his monkey opus. But be ready to forgive him. Because this movie is more than good enough to overcome its excessive, 187-minute length. Oh, hell yes it is.

Directed and co-written by Jackson, Kong uses a combination of models, sets, computer animation, and Andy “Gollum” Serkis in another motion-capture unitard to return to theaters the giant ape made famous back in 1933. Since its debut, King Kong has been revisited ad nauseam, in remakes, in sequels, and in “inspired-by” spinoffs like Mighty Joe Young. None of them have approached the greatness of this film — perhaps not even the original.

The basics of the story remain much the same. An obsessively self-promoting filmmaker named Carl Denham (Jack Black) loads a film crew and a hapless young actress named Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) onto a boat to set out for a mysterious place known only as Skull Island. There, they find more at their shooting location than they bargained for. The natives kidnap their leading lady and sacrifice her to their local god — a 25-foot-tall ape named Kong. But Kong doesn’t do with Anne what he usually does with his other victims. Her blonde hair hypnotizes him, her beauty beguiles him, and so he leaves her limbs intact. This monkey’s in love.

The essentials remain spot-on faithful to the original movie Jackson is remaking, but in between those he’s made this pic his own. Now more than a sympathetic monster movie, Kong has become a deeply emotional, sometimes tortured film. Thematically, this is a story not about fighting gargantuan monsters, but about loneliness. Naomi Watts is a big part of that deeper story; she plays off Kong like the big furball is actually standing there. Anne Darrow identifies with his tragedy, and we see him through her eyes.

This has the unexpected effect of making it possible to absolutely love Kong, even while he’s biting the head off one of the movie’s human hero characters. King Kong’s not pulling any punches, and the film is almost surprisingly brutal in the way characters are smashed, shaken, shot, and in many cases eaten. Again, Jackson has taken that 1933 source material and put his stamp on it. His affinity for the macabre is all over the movie, in a way that’s been absent in past incarnations. As a result, the film is in places flat-out scary — the kind of scary you don’t usually get outside of Wes Craven flicks. Take a date and wait for her to crush your arm during the movie’s gleefully gruesome bug attack.

If there’s any place where Kong misses, it’s only because Peter’s reach has extended beyond his grasp. The movie is consistently plagued by flesh and blood, live actors who don’t always mesh properly into the beautifully constructed CGI action. You’re left with a movie full of actors who occasionally look like they’re running in front of a screen while a lot of wild hoopla goes on behind them, which in point of fact they are.

Those special effects criticisms are small potatoes in the face of a feature film this masterfully created. It’s too involving and full of little delights to be dragged down by effects work. This is the kind of movie that’d be nearly as good were it still using those primitive stop-motion techniques put to work on the 1933 version. It’s clear from what’s up on screen that the people making it love this material, and because of that, Kong succeeds brilliantly.