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By Pete Vonder Haar | December 14, 2005

One of the nice things about the end of the year is it’s the time studios decide to release many of their smaller, more personal pictures for Academy Award consideration. You can already see “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Libertine” in limited release, and now Universal is trotting out “King Kong,” its understated romance starring Naomi Watts and…a giant ape.

Ha ha, but seriously, Peter Jackson’s remake of the 1933 Merian C. Cooper classic is, my hilarious jokes aside, far from understated. With a budget rumored to be in the $250 million range, Jackson pulls out all the stops in re-creating Depression-era New York City, Skull Island, and the film’s titular star, which is the most amazing computer-generated character created to date. Everything about this movie screams “spectacle,” from the production design to the action sequences to the pre-release publicity. “King Kong” is the event movie of the holiday season, but is it any good? More specifically, is it as fan-freaking-tastic as everyone seems to think?

Well, it is a pretty good movie. Jackson has created a world effective enough to draw you in and, a few stupid exceptions aside, keep you engrossed for three solid hours. This is one of the marks of a talented director, and the closest comparison I can come up with is “Titanic” (bear with me for a minute). As stupefyingly horrendous as I found that movie, and as much as I wanted to expunge most of it from my memory immediately afterward with strong drink, I couldn’t deny that James Cameron has produced a setting convincing enough to suck me in for most of the picture. Jackson accomplishes the same thing, and with only a third as many contrived romantic interludes.

The film starts off with a credits sequence montage of NYC during the Depression (something Cooper didn’t have to worry about in the original, since his movie actually came out in 1933), but from there the plot should be familiar to everyone: struggling director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is setting out on a tramp steamer to an uncharted island to film his masterpiece, with newly discovered actress Ann Darrow (Watts), square-jawed yet sensitive screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and the rest of his cast and equipment in tow.

Their ship, the Venture, casts off just ahead of the cops sent by the studio to stop Denham, and for the better part of the next hour, we’re introduced to the ship’s crew (including the no-nonsense captain, the stoic first mate, and Jimmy, the annoying Kid With Something To Prove) while the budding romance between Ann and Jack is allowed some time to germinate.

People are going to complain about “King Kong’s” running time, and many of these complaints will come in the first hour, during which you don’t even see Skull Island. Personally, I think the time is well spent, fleshing out the story and allowing Jackson to build up anticipation, because once we move onto the island, you can kiss most of the characterization goodbye. The action comes ridiculously fast, and is broken up only by the growing relationship between Ann and Kong.

WETA has done an amazing job with the big ape, who – CG gorilla or not – is one of the most fully realized characters in recent memory. Andy Serkis dons the sensor suit once again, and the result is nothing short of outstanding. The live action-CGI blending may not be seamless, but Kong is another great leap forward in the development of all-digital characters. More than Black’s morally dissolute Denham, more than Brody’s sensitive tough guy Jack, and even more than Watts’ city girl with a strong sense of self-preservation (and a scream that would do Fay Wray proud), Kong is the very heart of this film. His affection for Ann is utterly believable, and their interaction grounds the film in between dinosaur stampedes and battles with giant insects.

Then again, their interaction tends to be overdone, especially in the film’s second half. Jackson may be Hollywood’s “It” boy right now, with a freshly pocketed $200 million salary for directing this, but he could probably use a more vigorous editor than his old crony Jamie Selkirk, who seems perfectly content to allow Jackson as much footage of Kong and Ann gazing into each other’s eyes as he likes. Some of this helps establish the pair’s rapport, but a little judicious trimming in the third act (and don’t get me started on Central Park…you’ll know what I mean) would’ve helped the flow immensely.

Similarly, the character of Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the aforementioned punk sailor kid, is annoying as hell. His inclusion is understandable to set up the “Heart of Darkness” angle, but anytime a character causes as many deaths as he does through his own immaturity, he should himself die. We didn’t cut Jar Jar any slack, and Jimmy deserves the same censure.

But these gripes are relatively minor, given the enjoyment I felt during most of “King Kong.” Here is a movie that celebrates the heyday of adventure cinema even as it embraces technology’s bleeding edge. And I’m willing to forgive a lot when giant gorillas and tyrannosaurs are involved. Must be the art snob in me.

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