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Review: 'King Kong' a giant pleasure

By Paul Clinton

Naomi Watts plays an actress who is captured by King Kong.


Peter Jackson
Naomi Watts
Adrien Brody

(CNN) -- What do you do after creating the multiple Academy Award winning "The Lord of the Rings," arguably the greatest film trilogy of all time? Well, if you're Peter Jackson you immediately jump behind the camera and direct "King Kong," a film that became a classic when it stunned audiences back in 1933.

Then you pack this iconic remake with heart-wrenching humanity, mind-blowing special effects and fill it full of indelible images, and do it all so well that it's destined to also become an instant classic.

In a word, Jackson's "King Kong," is spectacular, awesome, phenomenal and breathtaking. OK, so I can't boil it down to one word.

Jackson has been obsessed with this "beauty and the beast" story since he was a child and saw the original film flickering across his black and white TV at home in New Zealand.

He was so taken with the movie that the budding filmmaker tried to make his own version when he was just 12 years old using his mother's donated old fur stole for Kong. The top of the Empire State building was made out of cardboard and the New York City skyline was painted on a bed sheet (which was not donated). Unfortunately, this epic was never completed, but the desire to make a film about "King Kong" continued to burn in Jackson's heart.

After becoming a full-fledged filmmaker and making the critically acclaimed "Heavenly Creatures," he tried again to get "Kong" made in 1996, but Hollywood wouldn't bite.

After the huge success of the "Rings" trilogy, Hollywood would probably have let him make a movie about a phone book. He chose to return to his childhood dream and make "King Kong."

Along with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh (his longtime wife and business partner) and Phillippa Boyens, he created a script that keeps the 1930s Depression era time frame and adheres fairly closely to the original -- written by adventurers-turned-filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack.

Setting the scene

The story unfolds in a standard three-act structure. The opening shots of New York City in 1933 are brilliant in their attention to detail. You truly feel yourself being swept back in time as you meet raconteur filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black), who has just stolen the only print of his most recent film after studio executives refused to give him the funds to finish his latest travelogue/action flick. He's only lacking some action sequences and an actress. The only requirement is that she be a size four, because the costumes have already been made.

Enter Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a down-on-her-luck (size four) actress who faces either starvation or becoming a stripper in a burlesque show. She meets Black as he's desperate to get his crew onboard a Singapore-bound tramp streamer, the dilapidated S.S. Venture. She's reluctant to sign on for such a strange venture until she hears that an up-and-coming playwright she admires, Jack Driscoll (Oscar winner Adrien Brody), wrote the script.

They arrive at the S.S. Venture just as Driscoll is about to depart -- he has no intentions of going anywhere on this rusty old tub. But with the police hot on their heels, Denham tricks Driscoll into staying on board and they leave the harbor just as the cops arrive.

Unbeknownst to any of the cast or crew, the ship is not going to Singapore.

Denham has bribed Captain Englehorn (German star Thomas Kretschmann) into taking them to the mysterious and uncharted Skull Island, untouched by civilization. Denham hopes to complete his action scenes on this island shrouded in legend and lore.

Also on board for this ill-advised voyage are Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), a preening B-movie leading man cast opposite Ann; Jimmy (Jamie Bell from "Billy Elliot"), the youngest crew member and Preston (Colin Hanks, son of Tom), who is Denham's over-stressed, nerve-wracked assistant.

Kong captured

Act II begins with their arrival on Skull Island, inhabited by a tribe of natives who are set upon making the new arrivals their soup de jour. But the natives are the least of their problems. Strange creatures inhabit the island behind a huge wall and the natives capture Ann and offer her up as a sacrifice to these horrifying beasts.

It seems this primordial lost island is also home to a host of non-extinct dinosaurs -- and one lonely, gigantic ape that is the last of his kind in the world, King Kong.

The whizbang visual effects used to create Kong are designed by the multiple Oscar-winning Weta Digital Ltd. and the Weta Workshop Ltd., both based in New Zealand and created by Jackson. But the expressive face and soulful eyes are provided by Andy Serkis, who performed in the "Rings" trilogy as Gollum, a character who came to life with the help of computer-generated imagery.

Kong captures and is then captivated by the beautiful young Ann as he battles giant centipedes and T. rexes.

There are many scenes in this 67-minute second act that will knock you to the floor. A terrifying stampede of Brontosaurus, giant insects, man-eating creatures with tentacles in a bottomless swamp and other gruesome monsters you have to see to believe. All the while, Denham is cranking away on his camera, capturing as much action as he can while trying to save Ann from Kong.

As the rest of the cast battles away, a strange but touching relationship develops between Ann and Kong. He becomes her protector and she in turn gives him the emotional connection to another being that he so desperately seeks.

When Kong has to battle a swarm of giant bats, it gives Denham the opportunity to rescue Ann and eventually capture Kong.

Class of its own

We never actually see how Kong is seized and put on the ship, because Act III finds us back in New York, where Denham is declaring the 25-foot gorilla the Eighth Wonder of the World. Tickets for opening night are selling like hotcakes.

The action now speeds toward its eventual ending as Kong escapes from the theater after being terrified by the camera lights and flashbulbs. He stampedes through the streets of New York looking for Ann, and once he finds her, he makes that fateful climb up the Empire State building.

Those iconic shots of the biplanes shooting at Kong while he tries to protect Ann will tug at your heartstrings, even though everyone knows how the film will end.

Usually when I'm told that a film is three or more hours long, it already has two strikes against it. But my eyes never left the screen while the entire three hours and seven minutes flashed by.

Watts can scream with the best of them and still manages to look beautiful -- and never break a sweat -- while being dragged through the jungle by a huge ape. Black manages to keep the audience on his side despite some despicable behavior. Serkis, who also plays Lumpy the Cook on the S.S. Venture, has done it again, giving the computer geniuses plenty to work with by using his elastic features and expressive eyes.

If the "Rings" trilogy didn't convince you, everyone will now have to admit that Jackson is one of the most creative men to ever sit in a director's chair.

This film is in a class of its own. If anyone ever tries to do another remake of "King Kong," they should be put in a rubber room.

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