It takes some cojones to remake a classic like 1933's King Kong. Certainly, coming off the wild critical and financial success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson's got the juice. His King Kong is a loving homage to its predecessor, gussied up with state-of-the-art digital effects and top-shelf actors, and presented with all the extravagance of a fan boy who's become Emperor of the Multi-Plex.
Jackson sticks to the familiar story: Rascally filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, reined in but still tart) sets sail with his leading lady, Ann (Naomi Watts), and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), plus a salty assortment of merchant marines. They're bound for Skull Island, uncharted territory where Denham hopes to shoot his film. Instead, the island proves unimaginably treacherous, teeming with ferocious prehistoric beasts and one 25-foot-tall gorilla, who makes off into the jungle with Ann.
For all its menace, Skull Island is a beautiful -- and beautifully realized -- setting: Never have a fake jungle and its inhabitants looked so real. The gang's encounter with a pack of brontosauruses in a narrow canyon is a marvelous bit of adventure-matinee fun, as man and reptile careen head over tail in a crazy stampede. There's a bit of the old Dead Alive Jackson, too, in a cover-your-eyes icky scene where a crewman is sucked up by an unidentifiable man-eater that looks like tangle of dog peckers ringed with teeth.
Ah, for the sight of Academy Award-caliber actors battling giant insects. Brody and Watts are worth their fees, though: Any cheap hack can shriek at a dinosaur, but this pair also has to sell the love story. Not between each other (which is barely developed) but for Kong, whose eventual exploitation causes them great anguish.
Most of Kong, of course, exists in some netherworld of ones and zeros, but as he did in for Gollum in LOTR, Jackson employs actor Andy Serkis to give the gorilla anthropomorphic facial expressions and deeply soulful eyes.
A trenchant lesson of many old monster films was that a limited budget forced their directors to shoot compact thrillers that ultimately benefited from their financial restraints. At just over three hours, Kong is too long. Jackson could have easily cut 30 minutes from the prologue, or a monster battle; and Kong's final showdown atop the skyscraper could be tighter (but the digitally rendered aerial shots that show dawn breaking over all of New York are so gorgeous, I forgive him).
Right now Jackson has seemingly unlimited resources, plus the earned goodwill of the audience, and if he wants to gleefully blow it on the grandest King Kong of his boyhood fantasies -- a meticulously rendered, rip-roaring if slightly over-padded adventure -- there's little doubt popcorn-munchers everywhere will salute his efforts. Hail Kong.