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'King Kong': A Beast That's A Beauty


"Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson has said that the 1933 black-and-white "King Kong" is the film that made him want to be a moviemaker. Dino de Laurentiis had already revisited the story in 1976, but Jackson wanted to look at it again. And our critic Bob Mondello says his $200 million remake is a beast that's a beauty.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

There was never much doubt that the special effects would be spectacular. The trailer makes the film look "Jurassic Kong."

(Soundbite of "King Kong"; screaming)

MONDELLO: But were you expecting much from the script? Well, it takes a while to get everybody to Skull Island, about 70 minutes, but it's time extremely well-spent. Nearly every line of dialogue fleshes out characters you thought you knew but in ways that make them more interesting. Denham, the movie director who discovers Kong, for instance--he used to be flashy, successful, well-financed. Now he's a jokey huckster played by Jack Black, who's on the run from creditors.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Mr. COLIN HANKS: (As Preston) You're finished, Denham!

Mr. JACK BLACK: (As Carl Denham) Don't worry, Preston. I've had a lot of practice at this.

MONDELLO: Ann Darrow, the beautiful blond starlet, who Fay Wray played almost entirely as a screamer, is now a plucky vaudeville performer with a fairly complicated worldview as well as ideas about the character she'll be playing.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Ms. NAOMI WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) If she loves someone, it's doomed.

Mr. BLACK: (As Carl Denham) Why is that?

Ms. WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) Good things never last, Mr. Denham.

MONDELLO: Little does she know. And there are brand-new characters, too: a preening matinee idol, a pair of shipboard "Heart of Darkness" fans who look like Huck Finn and his buddy Jim, and a lovesick screenwriter who's great with words for Ann on the page but not with words to Ann on the ship.

(Soundbite of "King Kong")

Unidentified Man: Good legs. Sea legs. Yeah, sea legs. Yeah. Not that you don't have good legs. I'm just making conversation.

MONDELLO: Lots of character development on the way to Skull Island. And then the fleshing out gives way to flesh in danger in encounters with lizards the size of trucks, bats the size of biplanes and bugs big enough that instead of swatting them, our heroes shoot them. Jackson knows the original movie so well that there are lots of little treats for fans along the way: lines, music, even a dance that show up in slightly altered form this time.

There are things that Jackson sells too hard: a brontosaurus stampede that wears out its welcome before it wears out the beasts, for instance. But most of the time Jackson's enthusiasm for sensory overload carries you along with him, in a T. rex sequence, for instance, that goes airborne at about the point that any other director would be ending it and turns into a vine-swinging, mind-blowing Ape du Soleil routine.

(Soundbite of "King Kong"; growling; scream)

MONDELLO: All this, plus the only tragic love story this year that comes close to rivaling the one in "Brokeback Mountain." Though it may not have occurred to you that the way to Kong's heart is through his funny bone, that's more or less what Jackson tells us. Naomi Watts and a digitally enhanced Andy Serkis make the interspecies bonding work, and, happily, they do it without turning "Kong" into the tale of a girl and her 25-foot-tall puppy. In fact, at the screening I attended, there were lots of teary-eyed adults as the lights came up after the credits.

This could have been the running time, of course; at three hours and seven minutes, the film is undeniably longer than it really needs to be. I estimate that if Jackson had taken an ax to all the repetitive, boring stuff and sequences that don't wring you out like a dishrag, either emotionally or from sheer panic, he could easily have made an excellent "King Kong" at three hours and five minutes--easily. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of "King Kong"; screaming)

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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