Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
Based on the story by: Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Starring: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis

Okay…raise your hands if you thought Peter Jackson had gone insane.

Oh, come on! I can’t be the only one. I mean, you direct some hugely entertaining splatter-fests in the 1980s (Bad Taste and Brain Dead aka Dead Alive), then you go respectable in the 1990’s and 2000’s (what the hell is this decade called anyway?) with films like Heavenly Creatures and The Lord of the Rings, win a boat-load of Oscars and the clout to do anything you damn well please (and I do mean anything), and what does Jackson do? He decides to do a remake. But not just any remake. No, sir. He decides to remake King Kong. Well, it turns out that I was the crazy one…crazy for doubting Jackson’s genius. In Kong, the director has crafted one of the best films of this or any other year.

The film opens in 1933 New York. The Great Depression is in full swing and times are tough all over. When the vaudeville theater hosting Ann Darrow’s (Naomi Watts) show goes belly up, the aspiring actress is forced to steal fruit from street vendors. Enter filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black). Not only does he buy her dinner, he offers to make her the star of his next picture–a movie that happens to be scripted by her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Darrow finds the offer impossible to refuse, and within minutes, she boards a steam ship that sets sail for a mysterious place called Skull Island.

Once on the island, Ann is promptly kidnapped by cannibal natives and sacrificed to their giant gorilla god: Kong (Andy Serkis–more on that later). Normally, the 25-foot-tall ape would just tear these offerings limb from limb, but there’s something different about this blond-haired beauty. He carries her off into the prehistoric wilds and sets her down on a rocky plateau. When playing dead fails to give her a means of escape, Ann launches into her stage routine: doing cartwheels, dancing, even juggling stones. Kong loves it! From then on, he will do anything to protect her from danger. And there are dangers aplenty on Skull Island.

The third and final act has Kong captured and brought back to New York City in chains. He breaks free, of course, and after finding Ann again, begins that long, fateful climb to the summit of the Empire State Building.

Jackson has given flesh and muscle to the bones of the original 1933 story. Even at 187 minutes, the film never drags. The first hour allows us time to get to know our human characters–providing emotional depth where none had previously existed. And the second hour, for all of its fast-paced action and wizardry, does the same for Kong. We see the mighty ape walk past the bones of countess other dead giants–perhaps his mother and father, his brother and sisters, or maybe even a former mate–and then, desperate to end his loneliness, he offers his hand to Ann. In this way, Jackson avoids the lustful leering and pawing that made the original Kong creepy and the 70’s Kong campy. This Kong does not want a mate. He just needs a friend, a companion–even if that companion is of a different species.

Just as the story has been elevated from the original, so have the performances. Naomi Watts’ Ann is more than just a screamer. She has dreams and aspirations. She can look into the eyes of the beast and see the beauty within. Many people throw around the term “Oscar-worthy” at this time of the year, but here it is justified. Watts worked with green screens and wire rigs, but you would believe she was looking into the face of a real giant. Which brings up another interesting question: can Andy Serkis get a nod for best supporting actor? The Jackson veteran, who’s performance was translated into the creature Gollum for Lord of the Rings, does similar duty here for Kong. His movements and facial expressions were recorded by computer and transferred to the effects team’s CGI gorilla. And for the first time ever, King Kong has a real heart…a real soul. No computer, no matter how advanced, nor technician, no matter how skilled, could have accomplished that feat without Serkis.

That is not to say that the effects team has not done an incredible job. They have crafted a Skull Island that literally crawls with terror and beauty. From the six-inch mosquitoes to the six-foot spiders, there is enough here to make anyone squirm, but there are also gorgeous vistas and gigantic ruins that could never exist in the real world. And then there are the dinosaurs that put the Jurassic Park models to shame. In the original’s stop-motion-animated battles, Kong fought a single T-Rex. In this CGI enhanced version, the ape must do battle with three of them…at the same time. It is a fight that begins on a rocky ledge, goes over the edge into a tangle of vines, and finally ends on the valley floor. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

King Kong is Jackson’s crowning achievement. Filled with action, horror, and romance, this is the reason they still run movie theaters. It inspires awe and fear, joy and laughter, screams and tears…everything we go to the movies for. Dare I say it, this film is truly “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

4.5 out of 5 stars