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Evolution of an Ape 

What don't I like about the new version of King Kong? Not much. It's a little too long -- three hours, before the credits. There are a couple of characters who are not necessary: a sailor named Jimmy (Jamie Bell) and the director-within-the-film's assistant, Preston (Colin Hanks). Kong does not inquisitively peel the clothing off an unconscious Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts). The swamp scene was filmed, but cut out at the last minute.

But there will be no more negative comparisons to the original here. Because Peter Jackson's remake is one rockin' homage to the film that knocked him out when he was 12. In an interview I had with Jackson in 1996, when he was initially slated to do this film, he said, "I certainly would do nothing that radically revises [the original]. There's nothing to fix. I'll try to do a movie that is very faithful to what made the original film great. But I also want to do something that somehow has an energy and an invention of its own."

In the 1933 version, when Kong is atop the Empire State Building and the planes are buzzing and shooting at him, there's a close-up of a pilot, wearing goggles. It was the film's director, Merian Cooper, in a cameo. So watch for another pilot wearing goggles: Peter Jackson.

But on to the film, and why it's great: It starts grandly, in New York City during the Great Depression, with Al Jolson's "I'm Sitting on Top of the World" on the soundtrack. Kids are playing stickball, men are in soup lines and vaudeville is in full swing.

And two people are having troubles of their own. Actress Ann Darrow is out of work, and adventure filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black, who is a little too distracting) has backers worried maybe they shouldn't finance his next film. The two meet ace screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, playing the character who was a sailor in the original), and they trick him into staying on Denham's hired ship till it sails. Then we're off to Skull Island, "the last blank space on the map."

And this is where Jackson kicks it all into gear. The arrival at the island is perilous, but not as much as the adventure that Ann is about to begin, as hostile natives, drunk with bloodlust, grab her, tie her up and offer her as a sacrifice to something.

If you haven't seen the old one, I'll save some surprises. If you have, know that Jackson, while not doing a frame-for-frame remake, has succeeded with the story of the huge, misunderstood and if I'm to read it correctly, desperately lonely creature who is smitten by this tiny, beautiful blonde thing who proves to be entertaining company for him, just as he becomes a protector for her. There are, you see, boatloads of giant hungry things with sharp teeth, all gunning for her.

Jackson's visual effects team has fashioned magnificent jungle sets and populated them with truly frightening, and sometimes icky, beasts. Once the cast is put into it, usually running or dying in manners most grisly, the excitement level leaps. One of the original's best sequences pits Kong against a Tyrannosaurus rex in a five-star wrestling match. That sequence is ramped way up this time out and involves, let's say, more than two competitors.

Kong, by the way, went far beyond my expectations as a screen creation. He was played by Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit (the same way he played Gollum in Rings); then the information was fed into computers. Serkis acted out all the scenes with Watts, and we're seeing his actual eye and facial movements.

A special treat is the inclusion of the mythic "spider pit" sequence that was cut from the original, either due to pacing or because the one test audience that saw it was too terrified. Just know that it comes soon after Kong shakes a bunch of sailors from a log. Yuck!

By the time the big ape visits the Big Apple, we really get to see how much Jackson still loves the original. He even has the same Chevrolet and Pepsodent signs lit up in Times Square that were featured 72 years ago.

Of course, havoc is wreaked, cars and buildings and people are destroyed, and then there's that long climb up that tall building in the urban jungle.

Watts is a good screamer, Brody is a dashing hero, the effects (including an exact recreation of 1933 New York) are fantastic. And at the screening I attended, when the famous last words were uttered, there were people in the audience weeping. Seems to me that Jackson got it just right.

King Kong; Rated: pg-13; Directed by Peter Jackson; Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black, Andy Serkis

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