As Peter Jackson tells it, the original King Kong made him a filmmaker. After watching it on television when he was 9, he woke up the next day and began making models. It's almost too tidy a story, but it's probably true. King Kong is the kind of movie that can plant hooks that dig in for a lifetime. In 1933, its effects were groundbreaking, but the real breakthrough had as much to do with the heart as the eyes. Effects master Willis O'Brien and co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made Kong come alive in every sense. When he made his fatal plummet, they made it easy to forget he was really just a lump of clay.
Peter Jackson made a lot of smart choices in making his new version of King Kong, but not trying to outdo the original might be his smartest choice of all. Sure, Kong, co-written by Jackson with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is longer, louder, and more action-packed than its predecessor, and filled with effects unimaginable in the '30s. But it's also fundamentally the same double-edged tragedy of humans and apes wanting what can never be theirs. (Also, scenes of apes fighting dinosaurs continue to play an important part.)
Retaining the original film's art deco-and-Great Depression setting, Jackson's King Kong opens on a world of big dreams and dire straits. Struggling actress Naomi Watts gives her all to vaudeville audiences who can barely be bothered to look up from their newspapers, while across town, producer Jack Black struggles to keep a jungle-adventure film afloat. In sudden need of a leading lady, Black ropes Watts into a scheme to run off with some studio resources and film on an uncharted South Pacific island. (Nothing beats a good location, after all.) After half-kidnapping playwright Adrien Brody, they set sail for the not-so-welcoming-sounding Skull Island.
What happens next will be familiar to anyone who's seen the original (or even the all-but-forgotten 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake), but Jackson finds ways to make every moment feel new. After a start heavy on exposition, the film strings one action setpiece after another, each realized with the breathless excitement of an adventure pulp cover. It's as if Jackson set out to bring to life every fantasy of the last moment before earth gave way to space as the site of the final frontier.
Then there's Kong. Portrayed pre-special effects by Andy Serkis (who did the same for Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings), he's simultaneously a fully realized character and every inch an animal. Rather than projecting human emotions on him, Jackson lets him behave like an ape, launching into violent rages when needed, then turning playful and sulky as his circumstances change. Special effect or not, he holds his own against Watts, and their impossible relationship becomes the heart of the film.
The big ape sees something he wants in the human world and doesn't understand why he can't have it; the humans attempt to drag a bit of untamed nature back to the modern world, and their efforts only underscore the gulf that divides civilization and nature. It's a long way down to the bottom of that gulf, but for a brief moment, Watts and Kong find a way to ignore it. Jackson gets that right as surely as he does the sick thrill of tentacled creatures emerging from a pool of mud. He's made a Kong as sure to evoke the same sense of wonder and heartbreak as the original did for him.