Peter Jackson's remake of 1933's King Kong really begins with Naomi Watts' first (of many) Fay Wray-inspired screams—a high-pitched screech of terror that gives every speaker in the theater an exhaustive workout. Watts is super hot and all, but Jackson might have discovered her most notable physical asset: a great set of lungs.
Problem is, the first time that Watts screams is an hour into the movie. Jackson's Kong—which clocks in at a bladder-stretching three hours and seven minutes—could stand to be a good half hour shorter, all of which could be trimmed from its bloated first third, the chunk that differs most from Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's 1933 original. Pointless characters are introduced; Jackson's hyper-detailed re-creation of '30s New York starts feeling like visual overload; the film's Depression Era setting is reinforced over and over again—and that's it. Seriously, in the whole first hour, practically nothing happens. To his credit, Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have good intentions—that of giving Kong's human characters a bit more personality than they had in the '33 version, particularly in the case of damsel-in-distress Ann Darrow (Watts) and hero Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). The one character who doesn't need any souping-up is Carl Denham (a surprisingly nuanced Jack Black), a morally dubious filmmaker who crams wannabe actress Ann and screenwriter Jack onto a shaky boat, the Venture, and heads to the prehistoric Skull Island to make the film of his career.
More characterization makes sense, sure, but... but c'mon, this is King Kong, a movie about a giant gorilla who smashes shit up and falls in love and smashes more shit up. Kong's one of cinema's greatest characters for a reason, and Jackson's attempt to make anyone else in Kong as interesting as the beast himself just doesn't work.
So, okay, sorry—that's a lot of bitching, especially considering almost exactly one hour in, Jackson flips a switch (a switch I'm guessing is labeled "Awesomeness") when the Venture arrives at Skull Island, and King Kong becomes something that closely approaches the brilliant 1933 original. The island looms out of a dense fog, ragged spires of rocks rise out of the mists like the remnants of a desiccated rib cage; fear, for the first time, skitters across our heroes' faces; and the Venture, washed up on the outcroppings, is stalled until the next high tide—giving Jack, Ann, and Carl time to explore the island.
While exploring, the adventurers encounter the brutally inhuman natives, who promptly start killing party members and scaring the shit out of anyone who still has a pulse. (It's here that Watts lets out that scream, and it's here that a good portion of the audience will likely scream along with her.) Once the natives offer Ann to Kong—sending Jack, Carl, and disposable Venture mates in pursuit—the film embraces its identity as a balls-to-the-wall adventure that begins with the thunderous arrival of the film's titular star (who shows up with such raw power, sinewy grace, and soulful personality that he can't help but steal the entire film, just as he should) and culminates with a vertigo-inducing sequence atop the Empire State Building.
But Jackson, despite his dynamic camerawork and striking imagery, never loses sight of the emotions here—1933's Kong was visually impressive, but its minimal, cynical story is the thing that's made it resonate for over 70 years. Jackson retains this, while sneaking in a dark sense of humor and loving nods to the original. (For better or worse, the '33 version's unaware—or at least unconcerned—commentaries on racism, sexism, and colonialism remain intact.)
But Kong himself—man. Just as he performed Gollum in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, Andy Serkis provides "on-set reference and motion-capture performance" for the CG Kong—and, as with Gollum, it's a startlingly organic performance. Watching Kong furiously fight dinosaurs and gracefully swing from colossal trees is impressive; more so is watching the subtle movements of his lips, the sad glimmer behind his eyes, the earth-shaking rage that erupts when his fists slam into the earth. This is Kong's story, and whenever he and Ann are onscreen, King Kong is powerful, charmingly antiquated, and (weirdly) over much too soon. Once Jackson and company step back and let Kong tell his own story, King Kong proves to be every bit as stunning, spectacular, and heartbreaking as one could have hoped. Even after that totally lame first hour.