Peter Jackson understands fantasy — not just the Middle-earth-and-hobbits kind of fantasy but the jumbo-sized-popcorn Hollywood kind. He loves movies and loves the kick that we get out of larger-than-life moments: an impossibly glamorous woman clenched in the paw of a massive ape gazes at the man who's come to save her, with her huge eyes welling over with wonderment and tenderness and her golden hair perfectly blowing in the gentle breeze. Real life isn't like this, which is why we need the movies.
And Jackson's remake of "King Kong" is in every way larger than life; unfortunately, just a bit too much so. It's filled with glorious moments, and it features at its center a computer-generated ape so soulfully expressive that he just might break your heart. Its cast is near perfection, its screenplay literate and smart, its special effects state-of-the-art. But at a seat-numbing 3 hours and 7 minutes (the 1933 original came in at a tidy 103 minutes), it occasionally overstays its welcome.
"King Kong," with Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, Evan Parke, Andy Serkis. Directed by Peter Jackson, from a screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson. 187 minutes. Rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images. Several theaters.
After the success of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, clearly no one says no to Jackson any more. What keeps his "King Kong" from true greatness is the lack of somebody to call a halt to excess: too many dinosaur chases, too many reaction shots of Naomi Watts, too many creepy-crawly creatures, too many rescues and escapes. All of these things by themselves are marvelous, and you can understand an enthusiastic filmmaker's instinct for more, more, more. But together, all these elements make for a too-generous feast, and you rise from this table uncomfortably aware of having consumed too much.
Nonetheless, this isn't a movie to miss (though you might want to watch your fluid intake beforehand). And one of its biggest surprises is its first hour, which features no ape and no special effects worth noting: just a reminder that Jackson — now known mostly for spectacle and grandeur — can be a marvelous director of actors. (He's the one who introduced a teenage Kate Winslet to the world, in "Heavenly Creatures.")
Jack Black, all live-wire swagger, plays filmmaker Carl Denham as a fast-talking and very funny wheeler-dealer. It's a broadly comic performance (far more so than Robert Armstrong's work in the original), but it's all part of the fantasy: Black doesn't do subtlety, and you wouldn't want him to. Naomi Watts is dewy and gorgeous as the ingenue Ann Darrow, a vaudeville trouper. Denham rescues her from poverty and talks her into boarding the S.S. Venture, which will carry his crew to the mysterious Skull Island where his great (but not yet scripted) film will be made.
And in the biggest change from the original, Adrien Brody plays Jack Driscoll, a ship's crewmember on the original, now transformed into a playwright who has to be tricked into joining the voyage to write the script. Brody's not a conventional leading man; he's got a nose as long as a Peter Jackson movie, and a thin-lipped smile that's more likable than handsome. But Jackson and director of photography Andrew Lesnie shoot him as if he's a matinee idol, and he becomes one before our eyes. Watts is soon breathily staring at him, and the two fall in love in the swirling mist. Brody plays Driscoll as a slightly weary literary It Boy who, energized by Ann's blue eyes, becomes an action hero.
Once the giant ape is introduced, on a vine-tangled and ominous Skull Island, the movie changes course, becoming less about character and more about special effects. And back in New York for the third act, it changes course again, perhaps a little too late. There's real tragedy in the interaction between the doomed Kong and tearful Ann — and a beautiful, plummeting shot off the Empire State Building — but after all those dinosaur chases, we may be all too ready for the story to end.
Jackson spoils us with riches in this film, with one impossible sequence after another; the result is overwhelming but pleasantly so. But "King Kong" finds its heart in its small moments, between actor and actor, or actor and beast. Late in the film, Ann and Kong frolic in an icy Central Park with Christmas lights twinkling, swirling on a frozen pond and laughing as if in a dream. They're two creatures who have, for a moment, found perfection in each other: the stuff of swoony fantasy, as only movies can bring.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725