This is the best monster movie I’ve seen in years. I was not optimistic, having been burned before; what’s more, I still hold a special place in my heart for the original 1933 King Kong. But this movie adds new energy and excitement to a storyline that incorporates the ingredients we all expect. After all, when someone explores an unknown spot on the map populated by prehistoric monsters there are only so many ways you can go.

Kong: Skull Island scared the bejeezus out of me but enabled me to enjoy the experience. It made me jump repeatedly but didn’t gross me out. I salute director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose varied experience in non-horror TV and movies (like The Kings of Summer) benefits this ambitious endeavor. Screenplay credit is shared by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, and Josh Gatins (who provided the story). They are all in debt to the 1933 Kong and every film that has followed in its wake, including Jurassic Park…yet the movie never feels hampered by formula or cliché.

Setting it during the Vietnam era of the early 1970s is a clever ploy, as is the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as a career military man who’s bitter about walking away from ‘nam without having “won.” That leaves the irreplaceable John Goodman in the role of an adventurer (think Carl Denham) with a fire in his belly to learn what exists on Skull Island.

This being 2017, Brie Larson is a photojournalist and not a damsel in distress. The tracker who leads the expedition is played by Tom Hiddleston, not the first person who comes to mind for a role that usually demands a brawny hero. (My wife still thinks he looks like someone seeking a London club rather than a prehistoric beast.)

But somehow it all works. The visual effects are spectacular, as is Kong himself, who has been greatly enlarged in scale. Remember how Fay Wray wriggled in King Kong’s closed fist? Brie Larson is still tiny in the palm of this Kong’s enormous hand.

It’s been too long since I had such fun at a movie that promises just that. With a PG-13 rating Kong: Skull Island skips gory carnage in exchange for creature-on-creature violence and perfectly timed scares.

A post-credit epilogue promises a sequel, which doesn’t arouse my enthusiasm: the filmmakers got everything right this time around. Why can’t they leave well enough alone?

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024