casThis review could be considered to contain spoilers if you are not familiar with the original King Kong. Ie, if you have arrived on our planet within the last three days.

There’s no point in comparing Peter Jackson’s King Kong to the original. The 1933 movie is pretty close to perfect, a film that still works today. But more importantly it’s completely pure – it’s a first of its kind movie, and the memory and vision of it live in our communal memory. There’s something primordial about it.

Jackson’s Kong shouldn’t be judged directly against that original film, but it means that Jackson’s movie must be judged by a higher standard. In order to justify its own existence, Jackson’s King Kong must be nothing short of a phenomenal film.

Sadly, it’s not. It’s a good film – possibly even a very good film – but it never quite achieves greatness. There are things that Jackson does that (and I know I am courting blasphemy here) improve upon the 1933 version – and I am not talking about special effects – but there are also places where the film falters badly, keeping it from reaching great heights.

The new Kong is three solid hours long, and much of that length is given over to character development. Most of the crew members of the Venture, the boat that brings our characters to Skull Island, are actually fleshed out and have mini-arcs all their own. Jackson spends more time at the beginning of the film in New York City, and he uses that time to great effect. He sets up Ann Darrow as a talented but frustrated vaudeville comedienne, but more importantly he sets up the new Carl Denham. When I had heard that Jack Black would be taking on the role of the man who leads the expedition to Skull Island I was incredulous, but the changes in the character make it all work. He’s now not just a showman but an over the top charlatan, as well as a genius. He’s been modeled on a young Orson Welles as a man ahead of his time who will do whatever it takes to get his vision on film, even if it means stealing equipment from the studio bosses who are trying to remove him from a project.

One of the best things that Jackson does in the early scenes of the film is set up New York City in the Depression. For moviegoers in 1933 the context of King Kong was all too obvious, but in 2005 the reasons for Ann being willing to drop everything to jump on a tramp steamer to Singapore (she thinks) need to be explained more. But more than that, Jackson opens with an evocative image – monkeys. Then other animals, in cages. As he moves back through cuts, we realize it’s the Central Park zoo. And we realize that living in the Park just beyond the gates of the zoo are the armies of homeless, making due in “Hoovervilles.” On one level Jackson is setting up the animals in different jungles concept, but it also seems that he’s juxtaposing the caged animals and the completely uncaged (maybe even decaged) poor people. It adds a layer of meaning to Kong’s final rampage as he tears through a Broadway theater full of well-dressed society types (as does the fact that Carl Denham goes to Skull Island to make a movie – the people’s entertainment – and comes home with what is most likely an expensive stage show).

The first parts of the film feel odd – the pacing is off, and the tone is askew. Things are too jokey, which is compounded by an almost endless cavalcade of in-jokes (everything from Sumatran Rat Monkeys to Denham cursing Merian C Cooper, who has stolen Fay Wray for his new film). Part of the problem is that we really want to get to Skull Island. That’s the good stuff, and while the reconstruction of 1933 New York is an impressive technical achievement, monsters and dinosaurs are why we’re here.

Things don’t improve much on the Venture. Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have assembled a fun – and very period – group of misfits for the crew, and giving them personality is something a lesser filmmaker wouldn’t even have considered. After all, the original Kong presented them as a fairly interchangeable group of guys who get knocked off during the escapades on Skull Island. I just wish that Jackson hadn’t relied on boring conventions and truly awful dialogue for so many of them. The worst offenders are Jimmy and Mr. Hayes, played by Jamie Bell and Evan Parke. They have a mentorly relationship, but it’s endlessly marred by pontificating and Hayes’ use of Jimmy’s name in every sentence. I kept expecting him to ask Jimmy if he had ever seen a grown man naked. Bell is a dynamic young actor, but he’s relegated to a rote role here.

It’s when the Venture comes to Skull Island that things truly pick up. Jackson has re-imagined the natives as devolved from an advanced race that built a mighty wall that keeps the island’s more dangerous inhabitants away. The natives are scary as hell, and that’s the kind of stuff that Jackson can do in his sleep. Atmosphere, dread and horror are things that come naturally to him and here he pours it on liberally.

Jackson is incredibly successful with character and mood and tension, but in this film he’s less successful with the big action set pieces. The 1933 Kong still elicits childish glee in me as I watch the sailors being demolished one after another by a series of dinosaurs and monsters, while the scenes with Ann Darrow and King Kong were less interesting. In Kong 2005 it’s the exact opposite – Jackson has created a real and compelling relationship between the beast and the blonde, while the action scenes feel clunky and hollow.

He’s very faithful to the original – but to the extreme. In 1933 the sailors were chased by a (bizarrely carnivorous) brontosaurus. Here they are chased by a stampeding herd! And a bunch of velociraptors! In 1933 Kong battled a tyrannosaurs rex to save Ann. Here it’s three of them! And they end up fighting while hanging from vines! The T-Rex fight feels gimmicky (and Spielbergian – Ann goes from danger to danger again and again during the course of the fight so often that our ability to be shocked by it is exhausted), while the bronto stampede is just clumsy, and the victim of unusually poor special effects. The actors rarely look like they’re actually in the midst of a herd of anything. It’s disappointing when compared to the astonishing effects elsewhere.

There is a truly bravura set piece, an example of some of the finest filmmaking in Jackson’s career – the Spider Pit. Kong lovers will know that this sequence was cut from the 1933 version for being too shocking. In it a group of sailors who have been shaken from a chasm-spanning log by Kong are beset by horrible scavenging insects and bizarre beasts. It’s a sequence that plays right to Jackson’s strengths – you’re filled with utter horror and disgust as these creepy beasts begin the attack. WETA, Jackson’s in-house effects company, gets to show off the perversity of their imaginations with some really incredible creature design. Peter Jackson and his team have taken a collection of imagined Spider Pit sequences from our collective imagination and made it perfect onscreen.

What I love about Peter Jackson as a filmmaker, though, is how he can make an incredible scene of sheer horror, but can also do a scene of intimacy that is note perfect and real. That’s especially impressive when you realize the scene of intimacy is between a 25-foot silverback gorilla and Naomi Watts.

It’s in the scenes between Ann and Kong that you realize what an actress Watts truly is. WETA’s state of the art CGI Kong may be photorealistic and emotionally complete thanks to Andy Serkis’ motion captured performance, but it’s Watts who sells the beast to us. The way that she interacts with Kong in quiet moments – entertaining him with vaudeville routines, or sharing a gorgeous sunset atop Skull Island’s tallest peak (a scene replayed to heartbreaking effect atop the Empire State Building) – makes us believe in Kong as a costar on the set. Much applause must be delivered to Serkis (who also plays Lumpy the cook), who came to the set to interact with Watts even when he wasn’t being motion captured, but she still ensures that Ann Darrow is much more than blonde hair and a helluva set of lungs.

Another of the great things Jackson has done with his new Kong is to make the film about a love triangle. Jack Driscoll, a writer in this version, puts his life at risk to traipse through the primitive Skull Island jungle to find Ann Darrow, who he fell for on the boat. Kong keeps Ann alive because he fell for her when she proved herself feisty and different than all the other human sacrifices. Ann meanwhile loves Jack, but also feels for Kong.

Adrien Brody, like Jack Black, was casting that struck me as weird, but the change of Driscoll from seaman to writer makes a big difference. Also, part of the point is that Jack isn’t the heroic type, making his actions all the more heroic. His character arc is maybe the most satisfying in the whole film, and Brody brings a true wit, intelligence and surprising physicality to the role.

To make the love triangle and the Darrow/Kong relationship work in this version, Jackson has cut down Kong’s monstery tendencies. In the 1933 version I never felt bad for Kong when he was captured – I am always far too interested in the havoc he’s wreaking on the natives. In Jackson’s Kong the capture was one of the most emotional scenes for me. It’s brutal, and Kong is almost tortured. As he keeps on taking bullets, chloroform and even giant harpoons from the sailors he’s still trying to get to Ann, and in this version we understand that he’s trying to protect her. But he has to fall so that we can get him back to New York City, and Jackson has made sure that we really feel it this time. In fact he may have gone too far – at this point in the film Carl Denham became so utterly contemptible that I could never get back on his side at the end.

Kong wreaks less havoc in New York as well, and it’s in the middle of the rampage that Jackson again reminds us that he’s a genius. He stops the action and has Kong and Ann end up in a park (possibly Central, but going by general geography I feel like it must be Bryant) and have a touching and beautiful moment where Kong slides and plays on a frozen pond. The knowledge of his tragic end makes the scene all the more poignant. It’s also a scene that could play terribly – imagine the animal crackers scene in Armageddon. But in the hands of Jackson and the wizards of WETA, it’s the sort of scene that brings a lump to your throat.

In the end Jackson couldn’t bring that feeling back for Kong’s last stand. He takes the modern movie action scene route, which means the battle against the biplanes at the top of the Empire State Building drags on for ten minutes or more, building to multiple climaxes. Kong’s eventual death is also dragged out to the point where it starts to feel maudlin. Again, Jackson strays to the Spielbergian path.

King Kong 2005 is a major achievement in many areas, and it’s hard not to feel the excitement of a man who has lived out his childhood dream in remaking this movie. And God knows it’s nowhere near the embarrassment of the 1976 film. Jackson has certainly put his personal stamp on the story (again, the story – not the effects. I feel like the wonderful additions Jackson, Walsh and Boyens have made to the Kong/Ann relationship will be overshadowed by the leap from stop-motion to CGI), but the film’s shaky start and boring action set pieces keep it from being one of the year’s truly great movies.

8.4 out of 10