King Kong (2005), directed by Peter Jackson

Kingkong2005_bigfinal1♦♦♦½

Wow. If you like monsters and creepy-crawlies, it doesn’t get any better than this. I can imagine better. I’d like to see a bunch of people trapped behind the wall of Skull Island without all the modern hardware. But that movie hasn’t yet been made, so this one, with one incredible effect after another, will have to do.

But there’s a catch: you have to sit through everything else.

Peter Jackson whips open a big can of serious when a teenage kid on board the ship headed for Skull Island figures out that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and this movie) “isn’t an adventure story.” Regarding King Kong, the kid’s right…and wrong. It is an adventure story, just not a very good one.

This conceit — no, let’s be clear: this disingenuous conceit — kills the rest of the movie. The long opening in New York could have been fun (especially being a period film of the 1930s), but it isn’t, much, because of all the “character building” scenes. That means sadness, and tragedy, and desperation — those all too transparent triggers that are supposed to make us care about these people. As if we’re really going to be watching them when the creatures come out.

The main reason for the kid’s “not an adventure” line is Jackson’s interpretation of the island natives, which comes off as something from a different movie altogether. Its ugliness, squalor, and brutality might in some ways mirror what lies on the other side of the wall, but it does so mockingly, as if to say, how can you shrink from one and thrill to the other? (Perhaps — and I’m just guessing here — because very little of the film’s $207M budget went to cracking a man’s skull open with a club.)

The return to New York for the third act is undercut by some high-grade silliness, as when Kong, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) in hand, frolics on a frozen pond. In isolation, it’s cute, but it has no business in the middle of a massive ape-hunt. Watching this, and the preceding scene, I was reminded of Chuck Norris’ line before a recent Superbowl. To paraphrase, New York is the city that never sleeps — unless Kong tells it to. Then it goes deathly quiet to allow a little quality time for Kong and his gal.

This Kong is a mix of the previous two: definitely a beast (personally I think he would have snapped Ann’s neck the way he treats her initially), but also very “human.” His range of expression here, of course, is by far the greatest, but I have to admit that I still prefer the original, who wasn’t always begging for our sympathy. That said, one very funny and touching scene has Kong giving Ann the cold shoulder after suffering mightily to retrieve her when she runs away into the dreadful jungle.

The other characters, all Jackson’s effort notwithstanding, have no more depth — maybe less, in some cases — than the ones in the two earlier movies, but the performances are good. Jack Black’s Carl Denham is a good example of how hints of psychological depth can be less convincing sometimes than a solid stereotype. (Of all the films, the only one whose characters I actually like is the first.) And in any case, they hardly matter once they penetrate the jungle.

And that’s it, in brief: the five-star jungle is the reason to see this movie. The two-star story is the price you pay to do it.

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