"Kong" is likely to be king of the box office, but does the latest incarnation of the chest-thumping big banana deserve the crown?
"Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson's much-hyped "King Kong" remake opens on Wednesday, and after winning an Oscar, losing almost 80 pounds on the so-called "Skull Island Diet" and nearly shutting down Manhattan's Times Square to promote the picture, Jackson faces expectations as high as the king of apes himself.
"I think it's possibly going to surprise people — if they go see this movie, they're going to come away having seen a film they weren't expecting to see," Jackson told FOX News. "This is not a monster film — it's a film about a huge creature with a heart and a soul and a very noble but very scary animal that lives on this island and how he connects with Ann Darrow [played by Naomi Watts]."
Resurrecting material from what science-fiction author Ray Bradbury called the greatest movie ever made, the three-hour epic, with a budget in the $200-million range of James Cameron's "Titanic," is expected to hit a grand slam at the box office.
In fact, Jack Mathews, a film critic for The New York Daily News, is among many critics who have predicted that "King Kong" may surpass "Titanic" as the top-grossing movie of all time.
"Watching the Titanic go down in the second half of James Cameron's movie is visually and viscerally stunning, but Kong scaling the Empire State Building to swat at fighter planes is sheer inspiration!" Mathews wrote.
Other film experts, however, have a healthy dose of skepticism about how much Hollywood's latest remake has to offer.
"You see this trend a lot in the film industry, where talented young directors are discovered by the industry, which then puts a bunch of money in their hands and they end up making a lot of junk — basically a bunch of eye candy that ends up looking like a really good video game on the screen," said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Jackson, however, has stressed that he only made his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy to convince studios to allow him to remake "King Kong" after the disastrous flop that became of the U.S.-based remake of "Godzilla."
"Jackson has said that the original 'Kong' is the film that inspired him to become a filmmaker," rabid "King Kong" fan and New York-based theater director Matthew Hancock said. "On a technical note, work on a movie, or a series of movies, on the scale of the Tolkien trilogy certainly prepared Jackson for work on this childhood dream. Now, Jackson does not need to prove his talent or ability to anyone. This movie is going to be a huge success."
Many critics have even predicted that "Kong" will end up winning several Academy Awards, a rarity for a visually-based remake billed as a computer-generated imagery (CGI) spectacle.
"It will rake in the dough on its first weekend. It is probably the most amazing CGI movie ever made. The visuals are stunning, so realistic that by the end of the movie you're completely identifying with King Kong," wrote FOXNews.com gossip columnist Roger Friedman. "'King Kong' is likely to pick up a lot of technical awards, but that may be to its detriment otherwise."
Indeed, many film buffs say that while audiences may be swept away by the movie's visual effects, there may be little that the remake — which largely stays true to the original story, although Adrien Brody's character Jack Driscoll has been changed from a gruff sailor to a screenwriter — can offer thematically that dramatically differs from moviegoers' original trip to King Kong's "Skull Island" in the 1930s.
"There has never been a successful follow-up to the original 'Kong'; the 1970s remake tanked. The original film became such an unexpected success that there has never been anything substantial to add to it, and no possible way to compete with what was already achieved," said William Luhr, professor of English and film at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey.
"The golden rule has always been to remake films that were not a success, if you saw something in them," Luhr added. "To remake a movie that's already a milestone offers audiences very little that they haven't already seen, the way 'Lord of the Rings' did."
While the new "Kong" is almost certain to be a hit, the substance of what audiences will take away seems to remain an outstanding question.
"As the film's hidden, sympathetic hero who proves to be victimized by businessmen pillaging the Third World for their own gain, who is eventually victimized by a bunch of bullies and out-classed by so-called 'civilization,' King Kong has held on with Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf-Man," Sharrett said. "But some people will end up profoundly unhappy — and some will just shrug their shoulders and say, 'Well, that was an interesting three hours."
"Some people, especially younger audiences, will be wowed by the technical achievements," he added. "Others are looking for much more human messages: More impressed by the ideas and no really so interested in big-budget effects."
'King Kong' and the CGI Spectacular
Indeed, expectations for the film's computer-generated effects are very high, after the much-heralded success of the CGI character Gollum from Jackson's "Rings" trilogy, played by Andy Serkis, who steps into the high-tech limelight again as the actor behind the monkey in "King Kong."
"I think it helps that [Jackson] is using Andy Serkis for Kong as he did for Gollum, and because of that comparisons are bound to be made between the two characters. However, they are hugely different. On one hand, Gollum talks and interacts with other characters face to face, and Kong is a 50-foot ape, who interacts with his environment on a much larger scale," Hancock said.
"Also, Gollum is a supporting character, and it is my opinion that, to a certain degree, the success of Jackson's 'Kong' lives or dies on the audience's ability to relate and feel for Kong ... a 50-foot ape who does not speak," he added.
Even film buffs critical of the use of computer-generated graphics in movies seem happy that Jackson has opted to put a man behind the beast.
"He's wanted to diminish the CGI as much as possible — and put a man in a suit with CGI changes," Luhr said. "He was afraid of the whole thing looking like a cartoon; I suspect he's trying to make the character look as real as possible."
However, most fans say they're more than ready to accept a computer-enhanced Kong.
"Not just in the creatures, but in the recreation of '30s New York City, Jackson has proven himself a director who works extremely well with special effects and CGI," Hancock said. "I think something that he has done that is wonderful is not making Kong look too real. There is something wonderful about the stop-motion animation in the original film and it looks like Jackson has tried to capture that magic — as well as dazzling his audience with bells and whistles."
In fact, many "Kong" lovers think the CGI beast will top recent performances from real-life actors and actresses.
"I think Kong has more soul as an actor than most of the pretty faces movies trot out for us these days," said "King Kong" fan and New York-based screenplay writer Brian Steele. "I'd take him over Paris Hilton any day of the week."
FOX News' Mike Waco contributed to this report.