Hippo Manchester
December 22, 2005

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FILM: King Kong (PG-13)  A-

by Amy Diaz

Peter Jackson proves that, yes, he is that good with the grand and romantic homage to showmanship that is King Kong.

This movie doesnít try to update its 1933 origins; it embraces them, starting with its title cards, done in an art deco RKO style that recall a time when a movie was more than just a thing you watched, it was an event in which you participated. It was burlesque with bigger stars, the circus with better magic, the opera for ticket-buyers of every class.

Or so I hear; Iím not, like, 90 years old and I would have to be to comment firsthand on the showmanship of the early cinema.

But King Kong clearly speaks to something primal. The monsters are enormous, the emotions are unironically straightforward and sweeping, the thrills are, frankly, thrilling.

And the big gorilla? Really cool.

Actually, what is even cooler about King Kong is the many times it reminds you of the little monkeys that are human beings. When the humans start traipsing around the mysterious island that is Kongís home, they run into a variety of creatures that are either prehistoric or scarier versions of scary modern animals. Even though the humans are equipped with guns and opposable thumbs, they are no match, just weak tiny monkeys. That kind of humbling creates a surprisingly real sense that there is a great unknown element to the world and that element might really want to eat us.

But before we get to the island of People-As-Lunch, we open on Depression-era New York. Young actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) dreams of being in Important Theater but likes her vaudeville performance enough that she finds herself distraught when itís closed down, distraught about the loss of her stage and her paycheck. Across town, movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) is nearly out of work himself when his studio bosses decide to kill his current adventure movie and sell his footage for stock film. Hearing this (via the glass-to-the-wall method), Carl skedaddles before he can be officially fired. He grabs his film reels and tells his assistant to round up the actors and crew Ė they set sail for their island location that night.

Carl has a problem, though: his leading lady has bailed on him. He heads to a burlesque house in search of a girl who can fit in the old actressís wardrobe.

And thatís when Carl finds Ann. Desperate for work, she considers the burlesque but then runs off. Carl follows her, buys her a hot meal and then makes his pitch. Ann, though poor, declines until Carl mentions that the movieís screenwriter is Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), a playwright whose work she particularly admires. Ann agrees to do the movie and the ship sets off, pulling away from the dock just as the police show up to arrest Carl.

They head off in search of an island that the shipís captain doesnít believe exists. It is only when they give up the hunt that they run smack into the high, walled cliffs of the foreboding Skull Island. When the shipís crew attempt to repair the boat, Carl heads on shore with his crew and cast. They land and find what at first appear to be the deserted ruins of some ancient primitive peoples. After a little stroll through the bone-strewn remains, however, they discover living, breathing, extremely creepy natives. These natives, in true 1930s movie style, are not wise and docile but terrifying and immediately violent. They abscond with Ann, tie her up and shove her across a moat-like ravine in the direction of a horrifying roar.

Itís then that we and the offered-up Ann get our first glimpse of the gigantic Kong. Bounding out of the jungle, he gives a few from-the-gut howls, snatches Ann and heads off.

Carl, Jack and other members of the crew that will soon take on roles as bait decide to mount a search for Ann  ó Jack because he has grown fond of her and Carl because he thinks it will make some damn fine footage.

As the men search, Ann tries to deal with her bizarre situation. At first she makes a few escape attempts but, partly from weariness, she eventually attempts to just calm down her huge new friend. Ann performs some of her vaudeville routines for Kong, which gets him laughing and in a playful mood. Her pushes her down a few times and eventually she tells him enough and, like a scorned boyfriend, he pounds his chest and angrily stomps off. Ann heads for what she hopes will be civilization as well but soon finds herself meeting up with animals far scarier and with far more horrifying teeth than Kong. In fact itís just as Ann is about to be eaten by a T-Rex that Kong returns and, boy, does he really not like something else messing with his woman.

Eventually, Kong and Ann form something of a friendship, just in time of course for the men to show up and start the rescuing. But by this point Carl has decided to forget the film and bring back the living, breathing gorilla. Luckily, the ship has plenty of chloroform and Carl correctly guesses that if Jack saves Ann, Kong will try to get her back.

If you know anything about King Kong you know that this leads back to New York, to Kong in chains and to a trip up the outside of the Empire State building.

Size is big in Kong. The difference between the animals of Skull Island and the tiny squishable people. The difference between the ship and the islandís rock wall coast. The way the Empire State building dwarfs Kong. The bigness adds the element of wonder that is one of Kongís other themes ó can wonders still be wondrous if they are captured and sold to an audience, one admission ticket at a time?

In the case of this movie, yes. The actors, especially Watts and Black, give us reactions that allow us to forget that dinosaurs and giant bugs we are seeing arenít real. Andy Serkis, the human who provided the model for Kong, gives the giant ape a soul, conveying pain and love through his eyes and feelings both tender and rage-filled through his actions. Even the CGI comes through, providing enhancement to the movie without taking over the film.

Whatís most impressive about the very impressive King Kong is that at its monstrous three-hour length the movie flies by. The movie is a breathless adventure from its opening shots of bootleggers and Hoovervilles to its final scene of sunrise from high above Manhattan.

At last, a movie bigger than its hype.