Russell Baillie: Kong - big, beautiful and brilliant

By Russell Baillie

Herald rating: * * * * *

It would be easy to dismiss King Kong as the encore. The cover version, the B-side, the grand indulgence, the (jungle) drum solo after the three-movement cinematic symphony that Peter Jackson conducted in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Or to see it as pure movie biz folly. Just because you can redo the 1933 beauty and the beast classic with a computer-animated ape and US$207 million budget ($290 million), should you? That sort of money should buy you a few brand spanking new ideas (especially in Kiwi dollars), not one which has already failed once before in the 1976 turkey of a remake.

And the main problem with reworking the story of Kong is just that - the story of Kong.

It's silly if you say it out loud. (Girl meets ape on trip abroad, ape takes a shine to girl, girl's travelling companions put a stop to fledging affair, while battling dinosaurs.)

Kong is a classic movie monster, yes. But every time someone thinks to revive one of those, you usually get hokey embarrassments, even with serious-minded scripts and good actors. Or you get The Mummy.

But stop all this nay-saying because Peter Jackson's King Kong is brilliant.

Yes, there is a risk that assessment is the local hero-worship speaking, a reflection of what the success of the director and his various Wetas and Wingnuts means to our national pride.

But stuff that. King Kong isn't great because you want it to be.

It's great because it's hilarious, relentless, romantic, rambunctious, outlandish and reverential as well as referential. (On deadline to find a replacement actress for his film, Jack Black's Carl Denham runs through a list of 1930s big names, adding "Fay's a size four but's she's doing a picture with RKO" - that would be Fay Wray of the original King Kong.)

It's great because after three hours you know you'll want to see it again.

It's great because, like Lord of the Rings, seeing it through New Zealand eyes makes you laugh or sigh in different places.

Like when Kong demolishes the inside of Auckland's Civic Theatre (where dumped composer Howard Shore is seen conducting the orchestra) substituting for a Broadway venue. Or when those local faces keep popping up in minor supporting roles. Or when the giant wetas attack. Or what looks like a giant tuatara eyeing up Kong's new best friend for lunch. Or when in one shot it looks like the coastline of Jackson's boyhood home, Pukerua Bay, in the background.

It's great because it takes what you thought was possible with CGI and confounds you in action scene after scene. This is not a movie which has all its good bits in the trailer. Actually, some bits of the trailers aren't even in the movie. It's great because of Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow.

In a rampage through New York's Times Square, Kong picks up every blonde he can lay his hand on in a violent outburst of speed dating. None of them, of course, is a substitute for Ann Darrow and, having been entranced by Watts for the previous two and a half hours, you know how the big guy feels.

The jokes in Kong frequently echo the Jackson of his early horror/splatter/zombie/comedy flicks.

Like those, this sets out to impress with occasional grossness, though you can feel the restraint of a contractual obligation of a PG rating coming in the editing of some sequences.

There are hints, too of the Lord of the Rings in its men versus beast clashes. But while the Rings trilogy was something of a cross-country tramp, Kong is more a combined sprint and gymnastic event.

As director Carl Denham, funnyman Black manages to keep a straight face even if his eyebrows are occasionally acting like silent exclamation marks. And Adrien Brody, as writer turned rival for Anne's affections, Jack Driscoll, is a convincing cerebral action hero. Like Watts he's able to "sell" the peril of scenes where the digital dangers were added long after "cut".

There are some parts of Kong that feel contrived or surplus to requirements - including the frequent allusions to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which is being read by young crewman Jimmy (Jamie Bell).

There are moments when the CGI spell is broken, usually around the edge of the frame with some stilted digital extras or on wide shots with Ann in Kong's clutches.

But Kong himself is some piece of work, whether in his expressive close-ups or unforgettable action set-pieces, as when he's swinging from vines down a crevasse while boxing a couple of dinosaurs. Though, once on the run in New York, his ice frolics with Ann on a frozen Central Park lake are too much of a good thing, animation wise.

But even before it clambers up the Empire State Building, King Kong has risen to great heights. And that famous last-stand takes its inevitability and choreographs something that is still as visually captivating as it is emotionally affecting.

So is the rest of its brazenly exciting three hours.

It might be a different sort of beast than his Tolkien adaptations, but Jackson's Kong touches many of the same spots - the ones which remind you just how big movies can be and still be beautiful.

* King Kong opens to th public in New Zealand on December 14.

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