No monster movie is bigger than King Kong. AFI members recently considered King Kong to be the most influential film ever. The original King Kong has inspired more filmmakers, actors, and technicians than any film in Hollywood’s history. The score is considered the first modern film score. For the first time the music is timed to accent certain aspects of the action. Willis O’Brien practically invented movie special f/x with his revolutionary stop motion technique seen earlier on The Lost World. One of those filmma…ers so inspired was director Peter Jackson. It seems none of the wonderful journey that was Lord of the Rings would exist on celluloid if not for King Kong. At 12 years old, Jackson set out (unsuccessfully) to create his own version of the iconic film and has apparently dreamed of remaking it ever since. After a hopeful but aborted start in 1996, Peter Jackson finally brought his childhood fantasy to life, and was it ever worth the wait.
The first question you might ask is how does this film compare with the original or the 1976 Kong? This film simply blows away the 1976 debacle. As for the original? Obviously the 70 years of f/x progress means that Kong himself shows the greatest improvement. No question the stop motion Kong was the most spectacular thing 1933 audiences had ever seen. Today we live in a computer age where if you can imagine it someone can bring it to life. Jackson’s WETA Digital is very much like George Lucas and ILM. In New Zealand they are movie f/x. Unlike Lucas, Jackson integrates his f/x so intimately into the action that we cease to think of them as movie magic. Lucas tends to overload each scene with a “look ma what I can do” overindulgence. Andy Serkis plays the Kong character as he did with Gollum so that the other actors have something real to act against. His emotional range gives Kong a façade of realism that sucks us into the story without really thinking about the f/x. So, like the original, Kong is a real character to us, capable of feelings and deserving of our empathy When he finally slips from the tower of the Empire State Building, we share an emotional moment with Ann (Watts) that can only be possible for a real being. The film is far longer than the original. In this extended version Jackson’s Kong is about double the original’s running time. Jackson’s Skull Island, while richly detailed and far more elaborate than the original, maintains the illusion that we are in that same place. The creatures are purely magic, rivaling the best we’ve seen from Jurassic Park.
For the most part the script is faithful to the source material. Nature filmmaker Carl Denham (Black) wants to make the ultimate film. When he comes upon a map to a mysterious lost world, he assembles a film crew and deceives the crew of a tramp steamer into taking him there. Ann Darrow is swept up into the journey to meet the giant ape, Kong. As in the original, natives capture Ann and sacrifice her to the massive gorilla. An emotional bond of sorts develops. After several harrowing rescue attempts and Kong fights with the native nasties, Black decides to bring Kong himself to New York. Kong’s New York escape and ultimate final stand atop the Empire State Building remain intact and faithful to the original. Characters are juxtaposed. Driscoll is now a screenwriter and not the ship’s first mate. A William Shatner style actor in love with himself is added for reasons that never really become clear. Overall the story is pretty much the same, with many Jackson flourishes.
The cast is more of a mixed bag. Naomi Watts is actually a good fit to fill Fay Wray’s shoes as the damsel in distress. Fay’s performance is literally unforgettable, and Watts makes her turn at Ann her own. She has the right look and talent to play the part well. Fay Wray herself gave Watts her blessing shortly before her death. Jack Black is another story altogether. I’m just not sure he fits the role at all. He plays the scenes well, but Robert Armstrong’s incredible charisma is very much lacking here. Wherever I go and discuss this film the inevitable game gets played out. I’m always asked: “Who would you have gotten to play Denham?” Each time I find myself unable to answer with any definitive solution. Names like Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, and even Danny DeVito are the usual suspects rounded up in such discussions. Black does make the part his own. Still, there is this nagging feeling I can’t quite escape each time I see the film. Adrian Brody is fine as the love interest for Ann; however, that relationship never quite develops like it did in the original. Andy Serkis doubles as the cook in addition to his motion capture duties as Kong. The remaining cast fills up the scenery well.
King Kong is every bit the spectacle in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Everything about this print is stunning. Colors are absolutely realistic. The rich dark greens of the jungle act almost like a window directly into that world. The stunning sunset scenes both on Skull Island and in New York are regal in their presentation. The swirls of reds, oranges, and yellows provide a living rainbow of color and contrast. Black levels are pretty much perfect. You get an outstanding depth of detail in every frame. Spreading the film out over 2 discs was a smart move to allow for high bit rate and the best possible picture on a standard definition DVD.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is without question the best I have ever heard. It seems that in recent years rear channels have been neglected almost entirely. If you want to test your surround system, this disc is THE DVD to use. I set up surround systems here in Tampa, and believe me, I’m bringing this disc to every installation from now on. The surrounds go beyond aggressive. The entire sound field is always alive with sound. Sometimes subtle but other times booming sounds assault your senses at every turn. The Skull Island jungle comes that much more alive when you constantly hear things clearly all around.
There is an amazing audio track with Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens. This is not near the interactive group we were treated to on Lord of the Rings, but it is entertaining to hear the enthusiasm in Jackson’s voice. It challenges us to enjoy the film at least as much as he enjoyed making it.
There are 13 minutes of material added to this version. Two new monster attacks make up for most of this footage. Extended time in the insect pit and in a few other areas make for a mixed bag. Is this version better? Marginally, yeah, I think it is.
This is a 3-disc set. The film itself takes most of the space on the first 2 discs. However there are a few extras on each of the three discs. I love this set, with one glaring exception. The packaging sucks big time. The three discs are placed in a very cheaply assembled plastic box. The insert card covers disc 1 and discs 2 and 3 overlap each other. This is the worst innovation to hit DVD’s since two-sided discs. The problem is that you cannot use disc 3 without removing disc 2 and finding a safe place to put it down while you use the third disc. Sometimes I think these studios design these things just so we will scratch and damage the discs, leaving room for another purchase down the road. Either way, what a blight on such a fine product in every other way.
Disc 1: All of the extras on this disc are to be found under The King Kong Archives section.
“Deleted Scenes” There are a full 38 minutes of deleted scenes to watch on this disc. Many are unfinished and add little to the story. A few are alternate scenes. One such scene with Driscoll writing in his cage talking to Denham was far superior to the story of Jimmy stealing the pen that was ultimately used.
“The Eighth Blunder Of The World” This 19 minute feature is a combination gag reel and a collection of bloopers. It’s a little long for this kind of a thing, however. Many of the gags are deliberate and not the candid flubs you might be used to seeing. Sometimes someone is trying too hard to be funny. An unsuccessful effort was made to bleep out the F bombs, but often the bleep is inadequate to cover them. Why the attempt is made at all is unknown. The material itself is often a little risqué and not suitable for children, so why not just post a warning and leave the language?
“The Thin Missing Production Diary” This is a not so well hidden Easter egg. Apparently considered inappropriate for the internet, this little vignette shows the cast fighting over the single playback unit available to them. It’s actually a hoot.
“A Night In Vaudeville” This is an homage to the old vaudeville performances from the 1920’s and 30’s. It seems many of the acts used in the film were based on real performers from the vaudeville era. The 12 minute feature shows people auditioning for these roles and the full length performances eventually cut in the film.
“King Kong Homage” This is a ten minute look at the various references to the original film found in this version. There are many props from the original that are used as well.
Disc 2 contains part 2 of the film and the following extras.
“Pre-Visual Animatics” These are 4 crudely animated sequences from the film that were used as guides to the production crew and f/x people. They work pretty much like a moving storyboard and served basically the same purpose. You can view them with or without music from the film added on. They run anywhere from 4-10 minutes. Interesting at first, these do get a little tedious to watch after a time. This section will be of most interest to those of you in the f/x business or interested in early stage animation. In the final clip which depicts the Empire State Building climax, a side by side comparison option is available. I strongly suggest you use that option.
“The Present”Peter Jackson celebrated a birthday during the Kong filming. The cast got together to give him a gift but also produced this 9 minute film that shows this gift making its way to Jackson. Each cast member obtains the gift through villainous devices and is in turn done in by another. This is great Spy vs. Spy stuff.
“WETA Collectables” This is really an ad for the high end (translation: mucho dollars) products produced by WETA to sell in connection with the film. Most of us would have to rob a couple of liquor stores to have that kind of jack.
Disc 3 contains the 3 hour behind the scenes feature as well as a couple minor extras..
“Re-Creating The Eighth Wonder: The Making Of King Kong” At over 3 hours this is the kind of detailed look we got with the Ring Trilogy 4 disc sets. In 8 segments appropriate to the eighth wonder of the world, this feature covers it all. Pretty much anything you wanted to know you’ll discover here. While some of the interview clips were part of the earlier release, this is a new and improved feature. Jackson’s love for the original is never in doubt. His level of commitment and passion is epic. It’s obvious this feeling was contagious and had a strong effect on the entire production crew. It seems that Jackson’s entire life has been to bring him to this project. We also get to see inside the Kong that never was. Jackson shows us the designs from the 1996 attempt at making Kong that was aborted after nearly a year of pre-production work. Some of this Kong remains, however. While the feature is for the most part compelling, we do get a disgusting look at Jack Black’s butt crack. Fortunately this view came after I’d seen the film, or the resulting blindness would have seriously affected my ability to review the film. We’re also shown how much Kong’s look changed even after the release of the first trailer. I think this is a case of over thinking a thing to death. Kong’s look then is better than his ultimate look. Jackson put too much scarring and age on the ape, and it did take away from the look as far as I’m concerned.
“An Introduction By Peter Jackson” Can someone tell me why this navigational aid given by Jackson is on Disc 3? My advice is watch this before anything, and it will make your exploration of this set that much more enjoyable
Finally a collection of “Production Galleries and Trailers” complete this outstanding release.
King Kong lives. Never mind. Forget that cheap Kong film. Kong does truly live in Jackson’s remake. While taking nothing from the original film, Jackson has made the material accessible for those out there with little tolerance for black and white films or 70 year old f/x. I hope that if you did enjoy this film it might inspire you to check out the original. If you open your mind enough, I think you’ll have an enjoyable experience. Until then you can easily immerse yourself in Jackson’s world with this DVD release. It’s a shame the film did not do so well in theatres. Kong is far more magnificent on a huge screen, but the success of the DVD’s is at least a small recognition of the magic and love we still have for “The eighth wonder of the world”.”
Special Features List
- 13 minutes of added footage
- 38 minutes of deleted scenes
- “Re-Creating the Eighth Wonder: The Making of King Kong”
- A Night in Vaudeville
- King Kong Homage
- Weta Collectibles
- “The Present” featurette
- Pre-Visualization Animatics
- DVD-ROM of the 1996 & 2005 versions of the script
- Conceptual Design Video Galleries
- Outtake and Gag Reel