The most telling detail in Peter Jackson's grand, overlong, monstrously enjoyable King Kong remake is, considering the scope of this production, a relatively minor one. Having been captured by the natives of Skull Island, the ingénue Ann (Naomi Watts) is presented - tied and shrieking - as a sacrifice/gift to the enormous ape, who emerges from the jungle, frees Ann from her bindings, and grasps her in his giant paw. (Kong doesn't grace the scene until roughly an hour into the movie, and the moments leading up to his arrival are a miracle of sound design and visual suggestion; Kong's appearance is absolutely worth waiting for.) Like a petulant toddler who doesn't want to share his toy, Kong quickly races back to his jungle retreat with his new plaything in hand, and the force and velocity of the ape's movements make Ann resemble nothing so much as a human rag doll, her body limp and her limbs flailing.
Anyone even passingly familiar with King Kong (in either its 1933 or 1976 incarnation) will recognize this scene, but Jackson gives it an extra fillip that the previous Kong films couldn't - a point-of-view shot through Ann's eyes. As Kong carelessly swings the actress to and fro, we are shown the experience from Ann's perspective, and it's a vertigo-inducing whirlwind of trees and sky and fur; Jackson's sequence reveals the danger of Ann's predicament in a way we'd never quite considered before, but it's far more interesting for what it reveals about the director himself.
Peter Jackson has stated that the original King Kong - a movie the director adored as a youth - was what inspired him to pursue a career in filmmaking, and his work here is infused with respect and even awe for his material. But that POV shot lingers in my mind because it demonstrates the depths of Jackson's involvement with the King Kong legend. The director isn't pulling off this tricky visual stunt merely because, thanks to advances in CGI, he now can; Jackson seems legitimately curious about what this unimaginable experience must feel like. (In the earlier Kong films, Fay Wray and Jessica Lange faced dangers similar to the ones Naomi Watts confronts here, but it never quite felt like a person was in peril - more like a really delicate pet.) In that one shot, it becomes clear that Jackson, working again with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, has put time and thought into what this tale means to the characters involved, which makes it far more than another cynical rehash of a beloved classic; the movie is an empathetic blockbuster. Jackson's King Kong is a first-rate adventure spectacle, yet it has an emotional heft that popular entertainments of this sort rarely do.
King Kong is, of course, a Beauty and the Beast story writ very, very large, and thanks to Naomi Watts' sublime performance, it's about as moving (albeit unorthodox) a romance as you could wish for. In her early scenes, Watts - always a fearless performer - throws herself into the role of the struggling, Depression-era starlet with delightful comic abandon. She's not only playing an actress in the 1930s, but slyly commenting on her performance as a '30s actress simultaneously, providing Ann with just the right degree of witty stylization; Watts never lets Ann come off as a simp. Yet once the ingénue and Kong form their protective bond, that stylization seems to vanish. Suddenly, Watts' facial muscles relax and she radiates a warm, nearly maternal glow; Ann blossoms under Kong's affection, and Watts' performance gains a richness we didn't dare expect from this iconic character. Ann gazes into Kong's eyes with understanding and even love, and what's astonishing is that you can read those same feelings on Kong's visage, as well.
CGI characters have become so commonplace on-screen that they'll probably be forming their own union soon, but King Kong is a welcome reminder that, every so often, a pixelated figure can still make you turn to your movie-going companion and ask, in wonder, "How the hell did they do that?" With his mashed-in features and surprisingly tender sneer - he looks like the love child of Clint Eastwood and Clyde the orangutan - this Kong is a special-effects marvel, physicalized - as with The Lord of the Rings' Gollum - extraordinarily well by Andy Serkis. Yet what I couldn't quite get over was the emotional depth of this creation; Jackson and his effects team have fashioned a CGI character who conveys intelligence and true personality, and it's actually not an insult to say that Kong gives the most touching performance in the film - with his exquisite, textured soulfulness, I think even the film's human cast members might agree.
Like Spielberg, Jackson sets up incredibly clever visual gags throughout the film - wait for the scene in which Ann, who is hiding in fear from a hungry T-Rex, and the dinosaur itself, who is looking for a meal, don't realize they're actually two feet away from one another - and his staging is spectacularly assured; a mid-film dinosaur attack is so brilliantly well-choreographed that the surprisingly spotty CGI effects are only slightly distracting. (The humans and dinosaurs don't seem to be occupying the same space; at one point, Jack Black's director says, apropos of filming the enormous beasts, "Nobody's gonna think these are fake," and you feel like replying, "Wanna bet?") We expect scope and grandeur from Jackson, and on these levels, he doesn't disappoint - you might find yourself giggling in anticipation of every new scene.
In a few areas, however, the director does occasionally stumble. At just over three hours, King Kong does run on longer than it should - the film's opening third, especially, is weighed down with needless character exposition - but the bigger problem lies in the film's shifting tones. It's often not clear whether we're meant to be in a world of '30s naturalism or '30s fantasy; before we arrive on Skull Island, most of the film feels as weirdly italicized as the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy, yet the dialogue hasn't been written with any sense of satire, affectionate or otherwise. Excluding Watts' finely calibrated portrayal, the actors' readings - even those of the gifted Adrien Brody - lie in that awkward gray area between sincerity and self-mockery.
But when a film provides as much cinematic pleasure as King Kong does, it feels churlish to quibble about minor failings. The film is crisply edited and features more than a half-dozen truly exhilarating action sequences, and it's majestic as hell; the Empire State Building has never looked so ravishing on-screen, and Kong's eventual, heartbreaking free-fall (with apologies to the two of you who didn't know how the story ended) achieves a kind of fairy-tale perfection. The chance to film his own King Kong has long been a dream of Peter Jackson's. It's a dream that audiences will be thrilled to share.