Movie magic. That's what director-cowriter Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) accomplishes with this smashing King Kong. The film pays tribute to the 1933 original while improving upon it (forget the dismal 1976 version), adding wit, piling on fantastical creatures and giving the titular big ape the most limpid, expressive pair of golden brown eyes seen onscreen since the advent of Technicolor.
This three-hour Kong retains the original's Great Depression setting and plot, albeit tweaked. Now, a megalomaniacal filmmaker (Black, who's a hoot) hires an out-of-work vaudevillian (Watts, who's alluring) to star in a movie to be shot on mysterious Skull Island. Upon landing, they encounter a humongous ape with a weakness for blondes. Special-effects-laden scenes with Kong, rampaging dinosaurs and other nasty critters are wondrous, but it's two quieter scenes between Watts and Kong, who develop a lovely friendship, that thrill the most: In one she juggles rocks for his amusement. In another the two slide gleefully together across a frozen pond in a Manhattan park. Whether 10 years old or 80, a viewer's heart lifts. Mr. Jackson, you've made a royal King. (PG-13)