I gave my heart to Peter Jackson's gargantuan "King Kong" at the moment when the grizzled giant gorilla gave his heart to Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow. As the scene opens, they're on a high ledge over Skull Island, where the terrified wanna-be actress realizes the big galoot who carried her off in the palm of his hand is her protector, not her enemy. A vaudeville veteran, she tries to communicate by entertaining him with old routines. Kong is enchanted. A spark of understanding passes between beast and beauty, and lo, the cinema's most venerable interspecies love story is born again.
There's a similar moment of cross-species magic in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," directed by Jackson's fellow New Zealander Andrew Adamson. It occurs early, when Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest of the Pevensie children, first emerges from the wardrobe into the enchanted land of Narnia. There she encounters a Faun (James McAvoy) with hooves for feet, an umbrella in his hands and a diffident English charm. Rather than pound his chest and roar, he invites her for tea.
The two most eagerly anticipated Hollywood entertainments of the holiday season are packed to the brim with all manner of digitally enhanced beasts, mutants and slimy creatures. Centaurs and Minotaurs, talking beavers and the lion king Aslan populate "Narnia," a faithful, politely rousing adaptation of C. S. Lewis's beloved tale. Dinosaurs, giant centipedes and the vilest (and most phallic) man-eating slugs you'll ever encounter pop up in the spectacular "King Kong." It's zoology that draws us into the theater--just ask Carl Denham (Jack Black), the flimflam moviemaker who exhibits Kong as the Eighth Wonder of the World. But in both epics, it's the intimate moments that keep us there.
"Narnia," brightly lit and kid-friendly, has an appealingly old-fashioned feel to it. Adamson, codirector of "Shrek," wisely doesn't try to hip-ify the tale, leaving its curious blend of medieval pageantry, Christian fable and children's bedtime story intact. Lucy and her siblings have been packed off to the country to escape the Blitz but encounter greater perils in Narnia, which has been turned into an eternal winter under the cruel reign of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton). "Narnia's" greatest concession to contemporary movie fashion is in its elaborate battle, which owes a debt to Jackson's "Lord of the Rings." But that's fitting: without the success of that movie, "Narnia" would never have been made.
And without "Rings" on Jackson's resume, no one in his right mind would have given him three hours and $205 million for a "King Kong" remake. The gamble has paid off: "Kong" is a showy, state-of-the-art popcorn movie, faithful to the spirit of the 1933 original but generously adrenalized with the best effects money can buy. It takes more than an hour to get to Kong's entrance. The real fun doesn't begin until Denham, his screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and the ship's crew crash on the island that time forgot, where the natives are beyond unfriendly, and the smallest bug is the size of an overfed housecat. From here the movie goes into a delirious, hourlong free fall of nonstop action, highlighted by a marauding herd of brontosauri. Many battles later, just as you're feeling enough is enough , Jackson moves on to the famous third act: Kong in chains in New York. Kong on the loose. Kong on the Empire State Building, his beloved blonde trying to ward off the lethal biplanes.
The remarkable thing is how deeply you believe in their emotional bond. Aside from Black's and Brody's characters, most of the supporting roles are forgettable or worse. But you couldn't ask for a better ape. Credit goes not just to Weta Digital but to actor Andy Serkis, who, as he did with Gollum in "Rings," provided the physical moves that are the template of Kong's character. But it's the look in Watts's eyes that seals the deal. Action-movie performances don't get much respect, but what Watts brings to this role is extraordinary--a daredevil's physicality, a wistful melancholia, an irony-free emotional investment and, needless to say, a scream that could shatter glass.