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Hollywood's Favorite Giant Ape Returns In 'Kong: Skull Island'


It's been two weeks since the Oscars, time enough for the film industry to reset from prestige mode to blockbuster. This week, Hollywood's favorite giant ape returns to the screen in "Kong: Skull Island," a film that left critic Bob Mondello growling.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: So let's say you're making a movie about - I don't know - a giant aardvark, and it lives on a secluded island that you're not going to get your characters to for about 40 scene-setting minutes. That's too long to wait for the first scare, so how do you make people jump at the beginning without giving away the scale of your aardvark? Maybe just show a shadow - well, not if you're filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts. He brings on his beast in the very first scene.


MONDELLO: In fact, he even stages the scene in a way he's going to repeat later when it's time for beauty to meet his beast, and then he trundles through the 40 minutes of scene setting, having basically given away his big reveal, to build up to a reveal that isn't so big anymore but that does have helicopters.


SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Preston Packard) Fox leader to fox group, form a perimeter.

MONDELLO: That's Samuel L. Jackson as a military man fresh out of Vietnam, the year being 1973. He is eager to battle an enemy he'll be allowed to beat.


JACKSON: (As Preston Packard) Fire at will.

MONDELLO: The director has clearly seen "Apocalypse Now," and so it seems has Samuel L. Jackson. But although there'll be a trip up a river and a lot of face-painted but mute jungle folk, they are not making "Akongolypse Now" (ph). They're making something closer to "Journey To The Center Of The Earth" with comic asides about the reptilian critters that live underground.


JOHN C REILLY: (As Hank Marlow) I call them skull crawlers.

TOM HIDDLESTON: (As James Conrad) Why?

REILLY: (As Hank Marlow) Because it sounds neat.

HIDDLESTON: (As James Conrad) OK.

REILLY: (As Hank Marlow) Look; I just made that name up. It sounds stupid now that I say it. Just you call them whatever you want.

BRIE LARSON: (As Mason Weaver) I'm fine calling them that. Are you cool with it?

HIDDLESTON: (As James Conrad) Yeah, that seems like a good...

LARSON: (As Mason Weaver) I like the name.

MONDELLO: John C. Reilly offers much of "Skull Island's" fun while Tom Hiddleston's tracker mostly looks grim. Last year's Oscar winner Brie Larson points her camera prettily and pretends she's not embarrassed to be there. And John Goodman offers up exposition in his best Richard Attenborough-style "Jurassic Park" voice.


JOHN GOODMAN: (As Bill Randa) Ancient species owned this earth long before mankind, and if we keep our heads buried in the sand, they will take it back.

MONDELLO: These folks are stock characters. Toby Kebbell, meanwhile, is playing the one semi-human human, a devoted letter-writing dad they're all trying to rescue. Kebbell is also, through motion capture, playing the title primate, who is, truth be told, at least as believable as the folks around him and a good deal more believable than the script, which only makes as much sense as it absolutely has to.


SHEA WHIGHAM: (As Cole) Sometimes the enemy doesn't exist until you're looking for them.

MONDELLO: Battles with giant spiders, water buffalo and octopi, a few of "Skull Island's" more colorful critters, are modestly persuasive - battles with pterodactyl-like skull crawlers somewhat less so. And I confess I have not a clue what the production designer was thinking when he set up a theoretically polar Aurora Borealis in this tropical paradise. Maybe they'll explain that in the "Kong" sequels. Sadly that means I'll never know. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUETZAL SONG, "CIEN ANOS DE SOLEDAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.