I’ll give Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong one thing: As Ann Darrow (portrayed in the original by scream queen Fay Wray), Naomi Watts gives a downright heroic performance. She puts a terrific, thoughtful spin on Ann, showing her truly falling for this huge ape who can’t possibly have her. Scene after scene, she does courting rituals with Kong that, by rights, should get her laughed off the screen, and she really makes them work.
Other than a few scenes here and there, though, that’s about the only thing that Jackson’s pre-fab version gets right. The 1933 Kong did in five bad lines of dialogue what it takes Jackson five bad scenes to do. The storyline is pretty much the same: Megalomanical filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black in full blowhard mode) drags Ann to Skull Island to do the jungle movie of all time. The yin to Carl’s wacko yang is love interest Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), here a socialist playwright rather than the original’s sailor. But Jackson doesn’t do a blessed thing to update the dialogue; it sounds like the kind of cornpone that was already pushing up daisies in 1933.
By the time that the old Kong would have been half-over, we still haven’t arrived at that blankety-blank island yet. And when we do, it’s eye-popping in more ways than one, and none of them positive. African-Americans who had hoped the day had passed when they were portrayed on screen as superstitious savages will have a field day here. And when Jackson isn’t resurrecting old stereotypes, he drags his cast through an hour of fighting with CGI-based creatures who have nothing to do with Kong and everything to do with Jackson saying, “Watch what my computer can do!”
And is Kong “realistic”? It depends on your definition of realism, I guess. The movie doesn’t cheat, it shows him in full-shot most of the time, and yet, to me he didn’t seem any more plausible than the ape in the 1997 family film Buddy. The movie bucks him up with THX sound to intimidate us, but the old stop-motion Kong was a lot more fun.
The movie’s $200 million is definitely up on the screen. But mostly I just wanted to turn my head away from it, as Ann does when she gets a dose of Kong’s hot breath in her face. Ironically, it’s the movie’s quieter moments that work: the opening montage of Al Jolson serenading Depression-era New York; a couple of thoughtful sequences where Ann and Kong are essentially having play-time together. But as the movie’s disappointing box office evidenced, I think kids were more interested in getting the movie’s video-game version so that they could knock Kong off the Empire State Building themselves.