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KING KONG (article first published : 2005-12-16)

When you're the 44-year-old genius behind the profitable and acclaimed The Lord of the Rings, and have bagged a total of 17 Oscars for those three films, which have now raked in close to $3 billion, you get to live your dreams.

In the case of scruffy New Zealander Peter Jackson. that included being hailed as one of the most powerful directors of our time.

It also meant getting himself into shape - he's had laser eye surgery and has shed more than 35kg - and being handed a whopping $20 million to direct a film he's been aching to remake since he was a 12-year-old. That film, of course, is a third version of the classic King Kong, a thrilling tale hinged on themes of love, longing and loneliness, which first surfaced with Fay Wray as the beauty in 1933 and was first remade, as a camp exercise with Jessica Lange as the damsel in distress, in 1976.

Jackson's eagerly awaited film, produced at a reported cost of $207million and now showing locally, is everything one would expect it to be. It's three hours long, has more fully realised characters, comes laden with jaw-dropping-ly good visual effects and offers much exhilarating escapism, as well as a large dollop of poignancy.

This time around, Naomi Watts, star of 21 Grams and The Ring, is starving New York vaudeville actress Ann Darrow. During the Great Depression, she and others hop aboard a rusty, creaky vessel with scheming movie director Carl Denham (a restrained and beguiling Jack Black). Also there is scriptwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and other cast and crew (including Billy Elliot teenager Jamie Bell) - all out to make a movie on uncharted territory, the foggy Skull Island.

There they discover a very eerie world where humans - a tatty, eye-rolling tribe resembling mud-covered zombies - are at the bottom of the food chain . . . and monsters reign supreme. Colossal cockroaches, mammoth millipedes and other outsized creepy-crawlies, along with gargantuan bats and quite the ugliest water creatures ever seen on screen, with the capability of vacuuming up a man's head whole ... these are surprises that await Ann and company.

Oh and there's more - including a stampede of dinosaurs along a narrow cliff edge and a spectacular 10-minute fight between Kong and three T Rexs. And, of course, that pivotal, iconic finale which has the chest-thumping gorilla swotting planes like flies after it's shipped to the Big Apple, escapes and clings to the Empire State Building.

It's an adventure that also puts Ann in the hairy palm of the 8-metre-tall ape of the title, the beauty soothing and touching the heart of the savage beast - and he, when a gentler giant, touching hers.

Kong is brilliantly brought to life via computers - some 3 500 of them, in total, were used to weave the film's magic - which recorded the movements of actor Andy Serkis, who similarly breathed life into creepy Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For King Kong, Serkis was rigged with some 32 facial sensors alone.

The story, of course, is full of holes - for starters, how does a small and exhausted crew move Kong from the island to its ship, contain and feed him there, and then later get him in chains and on to a stage for exhibit in New York?

However, this is fantasy, after all. Look past all these quibbles, go along for the fun of the ride and you will experience a rush. Holiday crowds are sure to go bananas for what is a spectacularly rewarding romp and one of the year's best films. Rating: 9/10. Billy Suter




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