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AT THE MOVIES: Beast of Burden: King Kong (****)

Has there ever a film as good as Peter Jackson’s King Kong? It appears to us now the way the 1933 version must have appeared to audiences — as something utterly breathtaking and new. Where Jackson goes with his version, how he aimed higher and achieved more than the human imagination seems capable of with cinema as its mode of expression is astonishing.

But it isn’t just a dazzling spectacle. Like the mighty beast itself, Jackson’s film reveals a magnificent beating heart. Here is the true story of love and sex between males and females – nature in all of its grotesque beauty.

The 1933 King Kong turned Jackson into a filmmaker on the spot, as it did many boys during their childhood of discovery as they made their way through the usual slate of great horror films. By Jackson’s standards, King Kong was the best film and he even tried to make his own version when he was a boy using his mother’s fur coat to build an apelike character. That footage would be worth millions today.

This King Kong opens on Depression-era New York City in an indulgent panorama that will set the tone for the way the movie will play out only the viewer doesn’t know it quite yet. It wouldn’t do to have just one scene of the hungry and the desperate, he has to give at least ten. The story finally zooms in on one poor city dweller, a vaudevillian dancer and clown, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). Her theater has just closed down and she can’t get a job. She looks longingly at plates of food but is too proud to beg.

On the other side of town, scrappy producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) is about to get the plug pulled on his movie, written by Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) but he decides to bolt, leaving the execs with no choice but to send the police after him. When his lead actress drops out he has to find another and fast. He happens upon Ann Darrow and destiny takes to the sea.

They think they’re going to Southeast Asia to film an adventure, but along the way they learn of a place untouched by man – Skull Island. Denham decides he will redeem himself by capturing footage of this virgin paradise. Anyone who’s ever seen any King Kong movie knows that what’s waiting for them at Skull Island is a huge ape who takes human sacrifices.

But every expectation your brain spits out, Jackson surprises. The natives aren’t your average cluster of well-meaning savages with no choice but to steal Ann Darrow and hand her over to Kong. These natives are, well, just plain savages with zombie-like personality disorder. A lot of blood is shed before Ann and Kong meet for the first time and when they do – they bond instantly. One of the best moments in the film is the first time Kong hears Darrow’s shrill siren scream and he bellows his roar right afterwards. Love at first sound.

Kong takes his little blonde sacrifice without any of the wide-eyed fascination other Kongs have had. He doesn’t immediately notice her as anything special, which is a nice touch, considering that it’s distasteful in this day and age to present “the blonde” as being superior to any other woman. Kong treats her as he would any sacrifice, carrying her through the jungle and bringing her to the place where he usually kills his victims. Jackson films this scene unlike it’s ever been approached before, with close-ups of Watts traveling in the ape’s palm. It truly is something spectacular to behold and announces that Jackson is going to take you places that you won’t believe.

Another nice twist is how Watts’ Darrow woos Kong in her own way, not simply by being a blond goddess but by doing acrobatics and making him laugh. To Kong, she is a tiny dancer, something to take his mind off the nasty predators that populate Skull Island. The scenes between Darrow and Kong are so moving you have to keep pinching yourself to remember it’s a big, hairy fake ape and not a man.

To her credit, Watts makes this film more moving than it might otherwise have been. We are sympathetic to her from the start, as Denham calls her “the saddest girl in the world.” She is a frail and misunderstood waif in need of a big ape like Kong to protect her against all other things. When he sees her and she entertains him, he becomes not a beast any longer but a creature in love. And pity those who stand in the way of him getting back the love he loses when he’s taken back to New York. Isn’t it just like the agony of loss to want to destroy cars and buses to find the one you love?

Jackson’s updated Kong winks back at the original in too many ways to count and probably in more ways only an aficionado would notice. And to reveal some of the best ones here would ruin all of the fun. But it’s worth noting that Jackson has redeemed the original Kong from the ’70s version with Jessica Lange that left such a stink it nearly obliterated the good memory of the original.

Peter Jackson has resurrected the mythic creature and satisfied his inner child’s ultimate dream…and created for us the most unforgettable cinematic experience of the year.

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