There’s a new king in town. He roams the jungle with unmatched strength, and when he prowls his territory, other creatures must bow to his awesome primacy. I’m referring, of course, to Peter Jackson, the New Zealand filmmaker whose thrilling reinterpretation of King Kong is one of the wonders of the holiday season. As a follow-up to his triumphant Lord of the Rings trilogy, the movie seals Jackson’s reputation: He’s the most gifted big-picture artist working today, a master of epics from a human-eye view who excels at employing 21st-century technological wizardry to suit the needs of ageless, personal storytelling.
As a sophisticated blockbuster, meanwhile, based on a premise with little of LOTR’s gravitas and complexity, King Kong sets the new standard for honoring a mass-market classic while remaking it with nuanced contemporary self-awareness. I mean, let’s get real: If the 1933 original, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, was the era’s comparable marvel of special effects, the production was also about as refined as Kong’s left mitt. Lusty shrieking and fainting by Fay Wray as the ape’s delectable beloved to the contrary, the performances were heavy-footed, the dialogue was leaden, and on-screen racial sensitivity was in its primordial stage. Yet with the bracingly smart script by longtime teammates Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson, the remake acknowledges that very clunkiness with love and a sense of humor, incorporating relics of dialogue — and racial silliness — into the retelling. And with Naomi Watts so radiantly intelligent as the beast’s new beauty, the dynamic between dark, hairy, tired old male and delicate, blond, empathetic young damsel takes on new psychological reverberations.
The enchanting love story that ensues becomes its own thoughtful Topsy-Turvy-like essay on and homage to the very nature of theatrical creation, both in 1933 and today, all of which is easily accessible to those with a like-minded love of such wit and lore; it’s also expendable by those who would rather sit happily dumbstruck with pleasure as the old doozy roars to life again. Behold the savagery and egomania of show business, and behold, as well, the primal animal instincts of fighting and bonding! Or at the very least, behold the spectacle of the cinematic creation itself, King Kong!
Indeed, reliving those pleasures puts me in mind of Titanic, however imbalanced the weight of fantasy fiction versus that of historical fact might seem to be. In both pictures, the old world gives way to the new under duress (the ship and its prewar class system sinks, the untamed animal is defeated atop the swanky Empire State Building). And in both, the rush of pure, movie-going satisfaction is precious.
Three hours is a long run for a primate pic, but the time passes quickly when the entertainment is so full, funny, and unexpectedly moving. Although echoes of Max Steiner’s fine original music can be heard throughout the new score by James Newton Howard, the picture opens on ironic wings of song as Al Jolson burbles the tune ”I’m Sitting on Top of the World” and the filmmaker vividly establishes the contours of a New York City racked by economic depression. Repeated viewings will allow closer study of the juicy detail squeezed into this teeming artificial Manhattan; for now, it’s a brisk trot before we’re introduced to the monomaniacal moviemaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) and Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts in Wray’s dainty shoes), the newbie actress he casts as his leading lady in the exotic new picture he wants to make on an island far away — the worst location shoot ever.
The itinerary timetable allows for one hour before the ship anchors at Skull Island, one hour of nonstop action onshore (as the adventurers meet Kong, the adventurers meet dinosaurs, dinosaurs meet Kong, spiders meet the adventurers, ape meets girl, ape loses girl), and one hour back in New York as Kong and Ann battle the beasts of capitalism. (In a glimmer of hope for socially challenged writers everywhere, Ann’s shipboard sweetheart, Jack Driscoll, is no longer a sailor; he’s now Carl’s screenwriter, and he’s played by menschy Adrien Brody.) Jackson gets it all in — the crazy feats of battle, the little flashes of self-awareness from ruthless Carl (no one beats Black at portraying barely controlled mania), the postfeminist enlightenment from Jack. The new King Kong is a virtuoso demonstration of the industry’s most astonishing advances in computer animation — Kong himself (with a motion-capture performance by the invaluable Andy Serkis) appears as fully real as the luminous, earthly Watts, and Jackson’s dinosaurs make Spielberg’s dinosaurs in Jurassic Park look as if they were conjured in the Jurassic Age. But what resonates is the story, which is a very human tale of compassion, greed, loss, bravery, creativity, foolishness, and love. Something, as Carl Denham might have said, for everyone.