Simian sizzler: <I>King Kong</I> apes earlier versions

A simian the size of "King Kong" has a lot of meat on his bones, even if they would seem to have been picked clean by a succession of filmmakers. The 1933 apeflick, one of the most influential films of all time, has inspired several generations to watch and/or make movies.

One of the latter is Peter Jackson, who doesn't stumble in following The Lord of the Rings with the third incarnation (not counting sequels and ripoffs) of King Kong.

The film is easily but unofficially divided into three acts of about an hour each: The Voyage, The Island, and The Return. Jackson shows us an elaborate recreation of New York in 1932, highlighting the Depression, prohibition, and vaudeville before focusing in on one entertainer, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts).

Her show closes, a couple of paychecks behind, and she's as desperate as almost everyone else on the street. But not as desperate as Carl Denham (Jack Black, probably the best person alive to deliver a snarky line like, "I'm someone you can trust, Ann. I'm a movie producer").

The studio has just red-lighted his planned adventure epic. He's stolen the film and is about to sail for an uncharted island, "a place thought to exist only in myth," to which he's found a map. His assistant's (Colin Hanks) honesty scared off their leading lady, and they can't find another who fits the size-four costumes ("Fay's... doing a picture at RKO").

What sells Ann on the venture is that the screenwriter is her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who is virtually shanghaied to come along on the crummy ship, captained by Thomas Kretschmann. The crew includes Jamie Bell, Evan Parke, and Andy Serkis (the artist formerly known as Gollum also does his motion-capture thing as Kong).

Love blossoms on board between Ann and Jack, much of it sublimated in his writing and her performing love scenes with vapid action hero Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), whose credits include Rough Trader, Dame Tamer and Tribal Brides of the Amazon.

 In this first section, Jackson, co-writing again with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, manages to simultaneously imitate and mock films of the '30s in just the right proportions.

He turns mostly serious as the ship approaches Skull Island and is almost wrecked in a sequence that lasts way too long, especially since not much happens, and the island looks cheesier by night than it will in daylight.

Yada yada, and the natives capture Ann to offer as a sacrifice to the 25-foot gorilla who lives behind a 100-foot wall. Her first scream and his first roar end the first hour.

The second hour is made up of awesome action set pieces with minor lulls between. Ann bonds with Kong by doing her vaudeville routine for him, only to find he's more amused by repeatedly knocking her down and picking her up again. When she stands up to him– well, to about 20 percent of him when he's standing straight– he knows he's in love.

The film crew and boat crew join forces to try to rescue Ann, but are nearly trampled by a herd of brontosauruses in what looks like a prehistoric Pamplona. She escapes on her own but leaves the frying pan for increasingly larger fires until Kong has to save her from a three-rex. Her clothes, unfortunately, hold up much better than Fay Wray's did.

Eventually Kong is subdued, brought to New York, and displayed by Carl in a Broadway theater. He escapes, does a Godzilla on Manhattan, and carries Ann up the Empire State Building like Spider-Ape. The familiar climax is dragged out too long as Ann and Kong stare into each other's eyes like it's Titanic.

 Since modern audiences are more aware that this is an interspecies love story, it doesn't hurt that the script makes it more overt, but the downside is that Ann looks like a slut for running into Jack's arms before Kong even hits the street. (Granted, it's a long way down...)

Watts may seem like overkill casting, but remember, most of us got our first look at Jessica Lange in the 1976 version. Playing most of her scenes opposite computer images to be filled in later, Watts does an outstanding job that could earn her a Best Actress nomination, this being a slow year. She's a bit like the wannabe actresses she played in Mulholland Dr. and Ellie Parker, with a hint of Marilyn Monroe thrown in.

Black has the best lines, mainly the ones remembered from the original. (I couldn't help singing along to "...the eighth wonder of the world!" and "It was beauty killed the beast.") Everyone does what's required, but the movie belongs to Watts and the special effects teams.

"Nothing good ever lasts," Ann says in an early scene. King Kong lasts. It's three of the best pictures of the year– you won't complain of not getting your money's worth– but perhaps too much of a good thing.

You'll probably disagree if it's the only movie you see this weekend, but at this time of year critics have to sit through two or three two-hour-plus epics a day, so we're less appreciative. When you get the DVD, you'll find yourself fast-forwarding through certain parts, but you won't forget the theatrical experience.