Filmmaker Carl Denham (a miscast Jack Black) has found himself in a lot of hot water with his studio and business associates. Looking to complete his jungle epic, Carl recruits a starving actress, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), and a slumming playwright (Adrien Brody) to board the Venture, a steam ship headed to the mysterious Skull Island. Upon arrival, Carl believes he's found his perfect location, but the natives have other plans, and they kidnap Ann to offer her up as a sacrifice to Kong, the island's giant ape. While Ann initially tries to escape, she comes to respect and adore Kong and his feral, protective ways. While on the other side of the island, Denham has bigger plans for the ape, looking to exploit him anyway he can.
I don't envy Peter Jackson. Here's a director who has to follow-up his billion dollar, Oscar-winning, globally loved "Lord of the Rings" franchise with something equally as huge to appease the demanding moviegoing masses. He picked a remake of the beloved 1933 classic, "King Kong," and super-sized the modest original film to profane proportions. In the process of modernizing "Kong," Jackson has made his film a mix of ungodly spectacle and masturbatory overkill.
Over the course of the film's disconcerting 180+ minutes, the new "King Kong" (IMDb listing) breaks up the action into three segments: the first is set in Depression-era New York City, where we meet our characters. It's in this first act that Jackson announces his technological prowess, with frames filled with sprawling recreations of the era. I can't fault the film for doting on the characters for this first act, yet even though we're seeing a solid hour of exposition, the film still feels hurried. After some hellos, the script (co-written by Jackson regulars Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) gets the actors onto the boat destined for Skull Island quickly, force-feeding the audience a romance between Jack and Ann in the process.
Possibly sensing panic that the film is taking its sweet time getting up to speed, the second act on Skull Island is where Jackson loses his mind. Having imagined the film in his head for most of his life, Jackson seizes the opportunity to play in a monster-budgeted sandbox, and he lets his imagination run wild. With giant millipedes, spiders, dinosaurs, bats, and other assorted creatures, the Skull Island sequences are an immediate headache. Jackson's directorial eye goes haywire capturing all the rumbles of the jungle, and he whips his camera around relentlessly in a false bid to create bedlam. A mid-movie dinosaur stampede is a great example of Jackson pushing the visuals too far: he suffocates the audience with endless show-offy CG (which, if it involves a human and a special effect in the same shot, looks distressingly unconvincing) and quick edits, revealing his kid-in-a-candy-store heart a little too aggressively, at the same time, cutting off the circulation of anyone who might want to sit back and have fun with the adventure. Jackson is too busy doing all the work for the audience, allowing "Kong" to reach these shrill fever pitches that drag the picture into pure chaos.
Also found in the second act is the picture's jarring move from a slightly wacky period tone, to a darkly violent one when the Skull Island natives start to bludgeon and harpoon their New York invaders to death. I know "Kong" has a toy line and nose-picker appeal, but this is no film for little kids.
Once the big ape shows up, the film settles down for a nanosecond. For a CG creation, Kong looks pretty good. His facial features are easy to read, and the production makes sure the character stays close to his primate roots. Kong smashes and thrashes, a lot, losing a bit of his necessary vulnerability to make the critical "romance" between the ape and Ann come together. Jackson spends a great deal of time making it perfectly clear that Ann and Kong share a loving connection, beating the audience over the head with it as often as he can. We get it, Mr. Jackson. Kong's savage nature has been tamed by beauty. This couldn't have been communicated in 90 minutes?
The finale of the film contains no surprises for the fans of the original, including the same Kong and Empire State Building arrangement that's already an iconic part of cinema history. Of course, the showdown between Kong and man has been amped greatly, with even more sequences of the ape smashing and thrashing (for those who still might have some hearing left). Jackson is chasing his own tail by this time, brutally drawing out the climax to a point where I'm positive he didn't even care if there was an audience watching. "Kong" has worked so furiously to deaden the senses by this moment in the story that any hope for a tear or two to honor Kong's fate is like asking for a kidney.
"King Kong" works vigorously to keep the crowds busy with visual overload, and there is a certain chutzpah to Peter Jackson for taking three religion-renouncing hours to tell a tale about a giant ape with a crush on a mediocre vaudeville actress. Still, all the integrity in the world can't disguise the stunning lack of necessities in this remake and the appalling display of Jackson's Kong-like ego. You can keep the bloated budget, screeching soundtrack, and endless subplots; I'll take 100 minutes and a stop-motion puppet any day over this.
Filmfodder Grade: D+