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Good to be king: Version of 'King Kong' is everything you want it to be

Talk about a movie that's "pre-sold": the title alone on the big screen elicited fond applause at the advance screening of "King Kong."

In the middle of the film, there was applause for the original 10,000-pound gorilla when he took on three T-Rexes with only one hand (the other was holding -- and protecting -- the screaming blond heroine) and, after a battle royal, demolished all three.

Most importantly, there was applause at the end of the 190-minute seasonal blockbuster, the 10,000-pound gorilla of the year's movies. If I were the applauding sort at movie screenings, my hand claps would have been among them.

I think it's a masterpiece.

It really is everything you could want a giant movie entertainment to be -- and more. It's that "more," really, that's the movie's only problem.

It has no trouble being majestic, scary as hell, toe-curlingly suspenseful and full of the movies' oddest and tenderest romance.

It is, in grandest form, a great fable about innocence and show biz. (True to its '30s origins, the movie's last line is cynically spoken by the movie's crassest exploiter. They weren't afraid of unhappy endings back then, either.)

Truth to tell, I heard a discouraging word or two on the way out -- "boring" sneered one young fellow relishing his own belligerence; "they could have cut an hour and never missed it" said one woman, coming much closer to the mark.

Forty minutes is more like it.

The entire 40-minute Manhattan set-up to the legendary boat trip to Skull Island is ungainly and strangely inflected, as if the movie we were watching secretly yearned to forget about being the greatest of all creature features and just turn into a musical.

So help me, every time Jack Black strung a couple sentences together, I expected the third to be a song. His whole performance for those 40 minutes is full of corn and ballpeen irony, as if it were one long song cue.

After that, it's the primal movie of 2005 -- huge, funny, touching, frightening and exciting. It turns us all back into children, dwarfed by a world of menace.

It isn't just about apes on Skull Island that are 25-feet tall, wasps the size of condors, the hate-crazed bats the size of Piper Cubs and the centipedes the size of boa constrictors. (We never see any boa constrictors. They'd, no doubt, be the size of the Alaska pipeline.)

If that implies -- as it should -- a level of intensity that's a bit much for the littler ones, so be it.

It is, quite literally, "a jungle out there" for most of "King Kong."

The hype for "King Kong" hasn't been half as oppressive as it might have been. It didn't have to be. The $200 million movie sells itself.

Let me hasten to say that I am very far from a "King Kong" devotee.

Unlike wizardly writer/director Peter Jackson, who tells everyone who'll listen that the original 1933 "King Kong" was the movie that made him want to be a director, I always thought Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's original had a grand storyline (courtesy of Brit repatriate Edgar Wallace) and special effects that were impressive for their time but hopelessly bound to its era's technology.

The weird romance of Kong, the giant gorilla, and Fay Wray, the movie's primal screaming blond, was probably the product of Wallace, a cheerfully lecherous sort who once quipped that the definition of a highbrow is a man who has discovered something more important than women. (Wallace was a sophisticated man but, assuredly, no highbrow.)

The original "King Kong" is a prime exhibit of a constant creature feature problem, which is scale. You never really get one, and only one, idea of the monster's size. You still don't.

We're supposed to think Jackson's Kong, for instance, is 25 feet tall but sometimes he seems twice that, at least (in his review of the original, New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall guessed that Kong was 50 feet tall.) If the story and the technology weren't so sweeping in the new one, the scale problems would be distracting (in the original, it is.) .

Jackson stuck as close as he could to the original, rather than Dino DeLaurentis and John Guillermin's 1976 version (which did very little for me but had its defenders.) In the modern world of computer generated imagery, things are possible that were only dreamed of in 1933 and 1976.

That, frankly, is what makes the CGI look of the first 40 minutes rather odd.

Once, though, Big Boy himself shows up one hour and thirteen minutes in, all bets are off. (A scant six minutes later, he's thumping his chest for the first time.) It isn't Kong's jungle battles and final bounds up New York skyscrapers that are most memorable, it's the sadness and suffering of his eyes (this is a movie about great movie faces -- Kong's, Naomi Watts', Black's and Adrien Brody's, all in different ways just made for a movie camera.)

The trouble with these huge CGI action spectacles is how tinny and inhuman they usually turn out to be.

The only thing I now remember about Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is the surge of something like real feeling at the end of the third part.

There is, though, at least one sequence in "King Kong" I'll remember long after I can conjure up any part at all of "Lord of the Rings."

It's when our heroine Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who's a plucky but starving vaudevillian, is whisked away to Kong's lair. Our furry giant hero is, not surprisingly, sent into deep simian depression by the arrival of Hollywood types on his home turf.

Ann doesn't know what to do so, naturally, she does part of her low-grade vaudeville act to cheer him up (and keep herself safe.) She struts, tumbles, jumps around, waves and gives it her trouper's all.

Then he gets into the act and turns it into vaudeville knockabout -- Kong and Ann, the 25-foot gorilla and the size 4 tumbler.

Priceless. It's wonderfully HUMAN moviemaking, like that terrific moment in the original "Spider-Man" of the upside-down kiss.

"King Kong," then, is still a three-hour fable about two kinds of show business -- Ann's heartfelt, primitive appeal to the world's tallest and toughest audience and the crass ability of Denham (played by Jack Black) to exploit anyone and everyone just to make big, big money.

"King Kong," the movie, is going to be the greatest Denham movie of 2005.

But that's because, deep down, where it counts, its spirit is pure Ann Darrow.

Let the kings in the Hollywood counting houses have their KA-CHING. This time, they earned it.

King Kong

Review: 4 stars (out of 4)

Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody in Peter Jackson's much-awaited and lauded new version of the monarch of creature features. Rated PG-13, opening today in area theaters.

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