“It was beauty killed the beast,” said movie director Carl Denham at the conclusion of 1933’s King Kong, and one might say that it’s unbridled love – for that very same cinematic ape adventure – that ultimately does in Peter Jackson’s ultra-mega-deluxe holiday season remake. A spectacle of CGI pageantry and tender interspecies romance, Jackson’s reworking of the seminal fantasy film is clearly a passion project for the Lord of the Rings auteur, a chance to pay homage to his favorite childhood movie by bringing it into the 21st century with all the grand computerized razzle-dazzle he can muster. And yet that very same enthusiasm is ultimately what keeps this newfangled Kong from achieving the dizzying skyscraper-scale heights to which it so clearly aspires. Thrilling yet bloated, technically impressive yet emotionally remote, it’s a preordained blockbuster that astounds the eye but leaves the heart cold, an often-marvelous example of dynamic epic filmmaking that nonetheless proves more exhausting than endearing.
Aware that its second- and third-act rollercoaster set pieces will keep audiences from departing their seats, Jackson’s 187-minute Kong spends its first indulgent hour tediously establishing its Depression-era characters: craven moviemaker Carl Denham (a hammy Jack Black), playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and down-on-her-luck vaudeville comedienne Ann Darrow (a luminous Naomi Watts). Swollen and protracted to the point of painfulness, this long-winded introductory set-up is the section most in need of serious trimming. Yet things kick into gear once the trio reach their mythical destination of Skull Island, where they encounter (objectionably stereotypical) dark-skinned savage natives and – after Ann is kidnapped and used as the centerpiece of a ritualistic sacrifice – all manner of prehistoric beasts, including fearsome creepy-crawly critters, hungry dinosaurs and, of course, Kong himself (embodied by Andy Serkis, à la Gollum, with a mixture of agile power and plush toy sensitivity).
Though a brontosaurus stampede is the film’s biggest set-piece stumble, Kong’s battle with three T-Rex-ish behemoths is an awesome sight to behold, and it’s there – as well as during the climactic Kong-vs.-warplane scuffle atop the Empire State Building – that this Kong comes closest to approximating the original’s aura of majestic wonder. Detrimentally, however, Jackson diminishes his supernaturally-sized primate’s ferociousness, reimagining him as an overly mushy monster who not only doesn’t eat innocent bystanders as in the 1933 version (instead, he just tosses them off-screen) but also becomes cowed by Darrow’s motherly reprimands after getting overly excited by her lame slapstick comedy antics. And worse, by dialing down the giant gorilla’s inherent, primordial animalism, Kong – fitfully extraordinary yet largely lackluster – consequently sabotages its central Darrow-Kong amour, squelching the relationship’s dangerous sexual undertones and, as a result, transforming it into something akin to puppy (or should I say monkey?) love.