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King Kong: Special Edition (2005)

With his blockbuster The Lord of the Rings trilogy behind him, New Zealand director Peter Jackson switched gears in 2005 with a smaller, more intimate project: this extravagantly entertaining three-hour remake of the 1933 monster classic King Kong. Naomi Watts stars as Ann Darrow, a penniless and hungry comedienne struggling to survive the decline of vaudeville in Depression-era Manhattan. Determined to make it onto the more substantive (and lucrative) Broadway stage, Ann pursues the producer of a new play by her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody). The producer rebuffs her and recommends she scrape out a living in the peep shows, and while Ann's romantic idealism ultimately doesn't allow her to descend into such a cynical occupation, her momentary consideration is enough to cross her path with that of another beleaguered artist, maverick movie producer Carl Denham (Jack Black). A few steps ahead of angry studio bosses intent on firing him from an incomplete, over-budget, and underdeveloped adventure picture, Denham is captivated by Ann and seduces her into replacing his leading lady with the lure of work and adventure — and screenwriter Jack Driscoll. With the police in pursuit, Denham smuggles and cons his meager cast and crew onto a rickety ocean liner to complete the film at sea and on location in exotic Singapore, but he secretly plans to discover and document the "undiscovered" civilization of mythical Skull Island. Mysteriously drawn to the island despite crew attempts to thwart the course, Denham and his crew are attacked by vicious natives. Darrow is kidnapped and offered up by the tribe as a sacrifice to Kong, the giant ape who rules the creature-laden land. Kong obligingly snatches the terrified Ann, but he cannot bring himself to discard her as blithely as offerings past. As Driscoll leads a rescue party into the jungle, Ann is protected from the island's vicious dinosaur population by Kong himself, and she begins to bond with her brute guardian. Finally Driscoll reaches Ann and leads her back to the ship, unaware that Denham, with his film ruined, is using them as bait in a trap to lure and capture Kong for show in New York.

As most familiar with the story of King Kong know, Denham's plan ultimately goes poorly, and Kong rampages about the big city, leading up to a final confrontation atop the towering Empire State Building. Jackson's King Kong is, as expected, overloaded with awe-inspiring special effects and breathtaking action sequences. But it's also surprisingly effective emotionally, because of the skill with which Jackson and actor Andy Serkis (who also supplied the performance for the computer-generated character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) bring Kong to life as a misunderstood hero. It's not only exhilarating to watch Kong go all Chuck Norris on a Tyrannosaurus Rex (make that two T-Rexes, at the same time), but his indignant, pouting post-victory strut directed to the reluctant Ann is comical and endearing, and his humiliation in exploitation and defeat are heartbreaking. Sure, parts of King Kong are preposterous — the main human characters inexplicably survive too many certain-death scenarios against any odds — but the sheer ingenuity of those sequences (for example, a dinosaur stampede through a narrow valley with Denham and company underfoot) carries them through. Likewise, King Kong pays affectionate homage to the formulaic and cheesy adventure films of the 1930s, and some artifacts of this approach (like Jamie Bell's adventure-seeking stowaway character) fall flat, but Jackson is never precocious or emphatic with his missteps, and the surprisingly swift pace of the three-hour movie carries along the dead wood in its stride without pause for reflection. Although the picture takes over an hour before even reaching Skull Island, the magnetic personalities of Watts and Black ably sustain Jackson's effective momentum of expectation. The only flaw in King Kong's pacing, in fact, is one action sequence too many as what remains of Ann's rescue party is attacked by gigantic insects, but even though this scene suffers from action fatigue, it is nevertheless brilliantly conceived, including a number of gasp-worthy moments itself. The final half-hour in New York is dazzling, poetic, thrilling, and full of the joy of creativity that too many movies, particularly in the blockbuster genre, lack.

*          *          *

Universal's single-disc edition of King Kong is presented in a stunning anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Included on the single-disc edition are two dispensable bonus features: "The Volkswagen Toureg & King Kong" and a trailer for the movie Wish You Were Here. King Kong is also available in a two-disc Special Edition, which adds a second disc of supplements, including an "Introduction by Peter Jackson" (4 min.), and three documentaries: the webisode culled "Post Production Diaries" (152 min.) — which also can be viewed by date or department — the mockumentary "Skull Island: A Natural History" (17 min.) and "Kong's New York, 1933" (28 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with papaerboard slipcover.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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