If there's any further proof necessary that the best filmmakers are those who passionately love their material, it's Peter Jackson. It's hard to believe that Jackson could top his painstaking adherence to details he exhibited in Lord of the Rings, but he does just that in with King Kong, a subject with considerably less material to round it out. After all, this is just a story about a big monkey, right? Jackson disagrees.
Kong's story is now a part of American culture: a giant gorilla (Kong, a digital puppet controlled by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame) lurks somewhere on a mysterious island, a world populated by fantastic dinosaurs and creepy crawlies of all types. Accustomed to battling predators for his food, we discover that Kong is the last of his kind. It is here that Carl Denham (Jack Black) will film his new movie. To that end, he ropes in Ann Darrow (the lovely Naomi Watts) and Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) as his leads along with scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Even the crew has been hoodwinked into going. There's no one that Carl won't lie to, including the financiers of his film.
Unfortunately for the crew, they actually manage to discover Skull Island. After an attack by the natives, Anne is kidnapped and sacrificed to Kong. Kong decides there's something different about her (the implication is that it's her blonde hair). Anne relies on all of her thespian powers to keep the big gorilla from smashing her head in. Which is a good thing, because she always wanted to be a comedienne but could never find an audience. With Kong, she gets the chance to do physical comedy. Kong finds it hysterical, proving that tripping and falling on your face is a universally funny joke.
But their idyllic relationship, with Kong as protector, is not to last. Eventually, Anne is rescued and Kong is captured, brought back to New York to serve as a Broadway act. As terrifying and frightening as he seems, Kong is no match for the urban jungle. There's nothing Carl won't exploit, including the very wonder of discovery. He stages a vulgar show that trusses the giant gorilla up in chains. A winsome sacrifice is presented, just like on Skull Island...only it's not Anne. Things do downhill (or, if you prefer, drop from a considerable height) from there. You know the rest.
This version of King Kong is a masterful, outsized version of the 1930s original. By staying true to the characters, the movie ends up being more of a silent screen piece, filled with affectionate gazes between Kong and Anne. Communication is limited between the two characters, but it's a testament to Jackson's directing that we can see the connection. Kong's eyes are amazingly expressive, more so than his human counterparts. This is a welcome departure from the 1970s version, where Jessica Lange constantly began every sentence with, "Kong..." so the audience was reminded she was talking to the gorilla. We got it, thanks.
Amazingly, Black manages to keep his manic energy tightly focused. The character of Carl is believable through both Black's action as well as his pop-eyed sneers. Although he feigns courage, sorrow, and affection, Carl is the real monster in this movie and it's to Black's credit that he's a believable character rather than a one-note cipher.
Everyone else is essentially sidelined by the special effects, which are off-the-wall insane. Kong himself is fantastically rendered, but that's expected. What is surprising are the fauna of Skull Island. Giant flying bats, carnivorous muck worms, killer centipedes, rampaging velociraptors, tyrannosaurus rexes (sorry, V-rexes), brontosauruses, and a bunch of other outsized monsters stomp, screech, and ultimately die at Kong's giant hands. Forget Jurassic Park, Kong combines a brontosaurus stampede with velociraptor chase that ends with an awful creepy-crawly fest that will make you want to take a shower afterwards. And then there's the three-way battle between T-rexes and Kong that has to be seen to be believed.
If there's a flaw, it's the set up and arrival of the natives. Alternately meant to be spooky and pathetic, Jackson resorts to a lot of blurry shots. I hate blurry shots. I hate them with a passion. The only time I've ever felt that a blurry camera shot is necessary was in Gladiator, where it was a welcome reprieve from gut-wrench combat...in essence, the audience needed a breather. In the 70s and 80s, the blur technique was used to cover up low-budget effects in horror movies (see The Watcher for a more modern egregious example). It slows the film down, is particularly jarring in tone, and ultimately does the sequence a disservice. The natives are scary all on their own without blurry camera angles. It's the only time in the whole film that you actually feel the three hours.
But that's a minor quibble. Jackson's body of work is evidence that one day, fanboys will rule the world. Here's hoping we'll have more directors like him who revere their material as deeply.