A full hour of forgettable, underwhelming set-up introduces us to the key human characters of Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

That long, humdrum approach to the Main Event – the revelation of the ape – confirms what some have long suspected: that Peter Jackson, who served up those sensational adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, isn’t much of a storyteller on his own. As his earlier track record proves, he’s a bespectacled spectacle man. When you give him a script that is literary, rich in themes and character development, and efficient in its action, Jackson’s flair for the sensational can bring extra power to a good thing. And when you focus primarily on a character drama, he’s really quite good with actors. (See Heavenly Creatures.) But if the script is lacking, he tends to revel in gratuitous, albeit awe-inspiring, action.

And the action he’s added to the story of King Kong, which expands the original 100-minute classic to a full three-hour epic, is indeed awe-inspiring. King Kong, that famous beast who falls for a beauty only a fraction of his size, is back on the big screen, dazzling us in some of the greatest special-effects sequences ever put to film. In this version, Kong faces down other beasties in fight scenes that have been brewing in Jackson’s imagination for decades. These scenes are so brilliantly choreographed that viewers will end up groping around their feet for the jaws that have fallen from their faces.

But what more is there to say about this film? Each hour demands a great deal of the audience. And for many, each hour’s flaws will outweigh its payoffs.

The first hour tries our patience. We descend into a New York tested by the Depression. Jackson does wonders with a lively period-recreation montage, but can’t find any interesting characters living there.

Carl Denham, played by an amusing but ultimately insufficient Jack Black, is an annoyingly egotistical filmmaker determined to finish a troubled film. As his investors prepare to pull the plug, he grabs what resources he can and dashes for a boat that will carry him to a new location where he hopes to finish the picture. His determination minimizes the fact that his project is ruining the careers of his hard-working colleagues … and eventually getting them killed.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), the desperate vaudevillian comic he finds just in time to cast her as the star of his picture, is a cliché. Watts gives her all, and could have revealed a deeper and more engaging character if she’d been given the chance, but she’s biding her time in the first act, waiting to fulfill her primary purpose as a thrashing, screaming captive. Oh, she’s quite good at it. She spends the bulk of the picture either furrowing her brow in fear and bewilderment, or flailing as she’s buffeted about like the big monkey’s favorite banana.

Oscar-winner Adrian Brody is dealt the worst hand of the three leading actors. After a few scenes that set him up as a charming but frustrated playwright, he’s left to wander around the jungle looking for all the world like he’d rather been in a feel-good picture… you know, like The Pianist.

A variety of talented actors fill out the roles of expendable companions, including Colin Hanks as Denham’s forgettable assistant, Kyle Chandler as the classic B-movie star who is about to be force-fed lessons in method acting; the great Andy Serkis as a half-mad cook called “Lumpy”; and Evan Parke as the first mate who takes the role of mentor to a meddling young deck hand (Jamie Bell). The screenwriters make half-hearted attempts to flesh out these characters. Serkis speculates about the scary reputation of their destination. Parke and Bell discuss the frightening themes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But why bother fleshing these characters out when they exist primarily to have that very flesh gnawed-upon by the nasty residents of Skull Island, the film’s primary stage?

The star of the show, and the character with the most personality, is – surprise – the massive monkey called Kong, even though he doesn’t show up until the end of the first hour. Given a complex intelligence and powerful emotion through the motion-capture performances of Andy Serkis, who must have poured as much work into this as he did in playing Gollum, this ape is truly the king of movie creatures. You can’t take your eyes off of him. From now on, when you watch Jurassic Park, you’ll shake your head and say to yourself, “Kong could wipe these monsters out. All of them at once, if he needed to.” You might even shed a tear or two as he strides toward his famous fate – after all, few of us can watch without flinching while an animal suffers.

That first hour ends with the arrival on Skull Island, where Denham’s foolishness will send some of these filmmakers to their doom. Unfortunately for them, and for us, they stumble into the territory of an overly pierced and bejeweled society of zombie-native-savages. Jackson’s staging of these scenes is surprisingly derivative of his Lord of the Rings battle scenes. The swooping shots of the great wall that these people built to keep out the island’s beasts looks like nothing more than a redecoration of the wall at Helm’s Deep. And the savages’ attack on Denham and company is so over-the-top that it fails to truly frighten us. It’s just a lot of noise and trouble, strangely cast in a sort of blurred slow-motion.

The second hour includes one delightful scene in which Kong and his beloved captive Ann (played with the appropriate screams and angst by Naomi Watts) get to know each other; and what may be the most relentlessly astonishing action scene ever filmed (as Kong faces down a tag team of supposedly extinct creatures).

As Kong and Ann develop a delicate intimacy – one built on companionship, thank goodness, and not sexual attraction – we see inklings of what the film could have become if Jackson had spent more time on the characters’ relationships. Watching these two, I never stopped to think about the fact that Kong was a digital invention based on Serkis’ computer-monitored performance. I completely believed what I was seeing. Jackson is so good at capturing fragile emotions, when he can be bothered to do so, that he and his actors portray complicated emotional changes without any dialogue at all. For a few minutes here, I was watching some supreme big-screen storytelling.

After Ann Darrow finishes juggling three stones for Kong, Kong turns around and juggles three Tyrannosaurus Rexes for Ann. It’s a fight scene that ranks among the most astonishing action melees ever filmed. This smackdown begins in the dense jungle, then careens into a deep vine-strewn abyss which suspends the combatants into a sort of hyperviolent mobile, and concludes in a face-off on open ground. (Men, how many of us have ever worked so hard for the women we love?) Jackson’s team achieves masterful animation – some of which makes the Narnia events playing on screens next door look positively primitive. This brilliant work makes up for a far less convincing… and utterly preposterous… sequence earlier in the film, in which brontosauruses stampede through a ravine and somehow avoid trampling the humans running between their feet.

But that second hour also includes one of the most unpleasant fight scenes ever imagined, in which our less-than-heroes are attacked by the ugliest creepy-crawlies ever to infest our nightmares. It lacks the suspense and choroegraphy of beastly struggles in films like Aliens, and it fails to achieve the intentional horror-comedy of Starship Troopers. It’s just grotesque. If you need a bathroom break during this everlasting movie, this is the time to escape. There’s nothing worthwhile about watching these idiots dodge giant mandibles, wrestle with many-legged horrors, and get swallowed by giant fanged leeches. Nor is there anything convincing about the way they use machine guns to blast bugs off of each other.

The storytelling during this part of the film barely registers a pulse – the characters are reduced to mere types, lining up to fight losing battles with various monsters, and escaping through some of the most ridiculous accidents imaginable. (Wait until you see how Ann and Kong get separated at the end of Act Two. I mean, I know we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, but come on….)

And then comes the third hour of inevitable big-city mayhem, as Kong is brought to New York and turned into a Broadway show. It’s discomforting to see Carl Denham’s madness as he stages a wickedly disrespectful production and takes the money of sophisticated socialites. Isn’t that exactly what Jackson’s doing? Isn’t he taking our money and serving our appetite for destruction? He’s entertaining us with the sight of New Yorkers running for their lives in terror while debris comes crashing down from the skies. Didn’t we all learn, just a few years ago, that this kind of thing shouldn’t be served up for fun? Jackson likes to describe his films as “slices of cake,” but in ridiculing the New Yorkers who pay to see a crude and vulgar spectacle, while he proceeds to serve up that very thing, he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too.

It didn’t have to be vulgar. There is so much potential resonance in this story. The narrative suggests that men and women-well, males and females-who fall in love will have a hard time preserving that love during the merciless march of progress. It suggests that we aren’t as civilized as we think we are, and the big city is just another jungle. It suggests that we respond to nature with fear and a dangerous drive to apprehend and control it. It explores the role of entertainment in culture-a salve for loneliness, a balm to our irritable tempers. And on, and on…

There are some stirrings of those themes here, but they never catch fire. Jackson’s too busy charging from one major action scene to another. He builds to the ape’s legendary ascent of the Empire State Building with so much intensity that you can tell he cares more about this scene than about anything in his Tolkien adaptation. But he hasn’t given us reason to care about this moment nearly so much. Kong’s last stand is another spectacular visual display, make no mistake. But Jack Black’s closing words land with a pathetic thud, and that’s it… time to head for the exits.

In the end, this version of King Kong, the fulfillment of Jackson’s lifelong dream, is a special-effects extravaganza that pummels us senseless. It reflects a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the filmmakers for the original RKO film of 1930, but it assumes that we are enthusiastic about the same story. You may be, and if so, the film might knock more than your socks off. But it’s likely that the film will engage only your senses, falling far short of any meaningful contact with your mind or your heart.

“Beauty” may indeed have been Kong’s downfall, but Jackson’s downfall isn’t beauty — it’s how he has diminished some beautiful moments by indulging his love of chaos and sensationalism. It makes us just too tired to care, and that’s a major miscalculation. Something’s gone wrong if our strongest emotional response to Kong’s conclusion is relief.