With clever winks to the earlier version and a wicked wit, the basic premise remains the same -- a 1930s film crew sails to an uncharted island, where they discover a giant ape and bring it back to New York City to entertain the masses. But there are some key character changes here that intensify the audience's emotional involvement: Carl Denham (Jack Black, whose mug is a rich palette of expression, both comedic and sinister) isn't a successful filmmaker on his latest adventure but an Orson Welles-esque entrepreneur, a rapscallion whose current endeavor will make or break his nascent career. Not just an anonymous waif, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, with classic beauty and eyes that glow like Chinese lanterns) here is an out-of-work vaudeville actress -- a background that endears her to her primate captor -- with aspirations for the stage. And Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, in action-hero mode) is no longer the first mate but a Eugene O'Neill-like playwright slumming it in the movies.
Then there's the gorilla itself. Ultra-realistically rendered completely in the digital realm and sensitively portrayed by Andy Serkis, who also played Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings," Kong at once conveys the majesty of the wild and the empathy of a living soul. At no time, however, is the anthropomorphic line crossed. It's one of the movie's greatest strengths that Kong behaves like a gorilla, reacts like a gorilla, and yet, as our closest relative in the animal kingdom, invokes our sympathy.
Like "The Lord of the Rings" series, "King Kong" harbors a certain appeal for family audiences, but, also like Jackson's previous films, is in many ways a very adult movie. In costume, makeup and the way they are filmed, the natives that Denham and his crew encounter when they first arrive on Skull Island are frighteningly reminiscent of "LOTR's" Orcs, and the clash of titans -- Kong at one point takes on, count them, three Tyrannosaurus Rexes -- are gruesome, with battles and K.O.'s not seen before. Amid shipwrecks on rocky coastlines and brontosaurus stampedes -- one point at which, like in the original, not all of the special effects are seamless -- the pace of the action here is so intense that one sequence in which the group is attacked by insects -- on this isle, even the bugs are monstrous -- is accompanied by an understated, ethereal score, in effect granting the audience at least some respite while continuing to build suspense and dread. Worst, perhaps, though, is the affection one develops for the ape and the trauma inherent in his inevitable fate atop the Empire State Building. Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis. Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson. Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. A Universal release. Adventure. Rated PG-13 for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing messages. Running time: 187 min