If there's one thing to know about Judge Ryan Keefer, it's that he loves his monkeys.
Our reviews of King Kong (1933) (Blu-Ray) (published September 28th, 2010), King Kong (2005): Deluxe Extended Edition (published November 27th, 2006), King Kong (2005): Two-Disc Special Edition (published April 17th, 2006), King Kong (2005) (Blu-ray) (published January 23rd, 2009), and The King Kong Collection (published December 12th, 2005) are also available.
"Hey Homer, cut it out! Come on, quit eating me!"
Whoops, wrong Kong.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive—a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World."
A film that has inspired moviemakers for decades, King Kong has finally come to DVD, just in time for its big screen remake by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Warner Brothers has already produced two of the top releases of 2005 with updated editions of The Wizard of Oz and Ben-Hur, is King Kong part of a Warner hat trick?
Facts of the Case
How does one summarize a movie that has been the starting point for so much creativity and inspiration, and continues to do so, over seven decades after the fact? Well, for the very short version, you've got a filmmaker named Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, The Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young) who manages to get a young woman named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, Murder in Greenwich Village) on a chartered boat bound for a happy place named Skull Island. Despite the protests of Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot, McLintock!, Diamonds Are Forever), one of the ship's crewmembers, Ann is actually used as bait by the natives of the island, as an offering for Kong, the giant monkey that lives on the island. Denham manages to capture Kong using some pineapple shaped "gas bombs," and gets Kong on the ship back to New York, to make even more money with him. From there, the big monkey meets the big city, so you can imagine the wild and wacky events that transpire!
Like a lot of people growing up, one of the first films I remember seeing was King Kong (the 1976 version). Though I did not see the original version of the film until years later, it was something that captured my imagination and enjoyed thoroughly. Maybe it was the "beauty and the beast" angle, maybe it was the spectacle of seeing a large monster on the screen, but regardless of the incarnation, King Kong helped to start a lot of the action and cartoon figures that many of us see today.
And after seeing the original version of Kong from the '30s, I was surprised at how much brutality was shown for a movie of its age. There are a ton of people eaten, and even though some are claymation (or stop motion photography), some use what can presumably be called blood capsules when they are shown in the jaws of Kong. And in another scene I completely forgot, when Kong climbs a building, he pulls a woman out of her bedroom, and when he notices it's not the woman from Skull Island, he drops her out of his hands, to her death. Along with the abandoned spider pit sequence, this film is far darker than I remembered. In large part, this is due to the folks at Warner that managed to get their hands on an uncut international version, minus the legendary "spider pit" sequence.
Technically, King Kong has laid the groundwork for every major film since. Willis O'Brien's work with stop motion photography on the monster may appear crude by today's standards, but his work helped to inspire legendary effect artists like Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad). O'Brien had previously done the 1925 film The Lost World, and his creatures helped bring life to a larger than life character. Merian C. Cooper, who was nominated for an Oscar for Little Women, gave the actors capable direction, using a profound script that he worked on with Edgar Wallace, making sure that audiences understood more about the story, aside from "look at the cool monkey!"
Warner Brothers has given this 70-year-old film some good justice. Looking at it on two different large screen sets, it looks great, considering there isn't a master print to speak of. And the Dolby mono audio track fills a set well and sounds very clear, a pleasant surprise on the disc. And the "film within a film" aspect is used from the jump when you pop the first disc in, because there's a cool newsreel that serves as the introduction to the first disc's main menus. Starting on disc one is a commentary track with Harryhausen, fellow visual effects man Ken Ralston (Star Wars, Forrest Gump), and archived interview footage with Cooper and Fay Wray. There is very little footage of Wray on the track, and even though Cooper's footage is pretty cool, Harryhausen and Ralston's marveling at the film is really nice to hear. Ralston provides some technical knowledge and insight, while Harryhausen provides some retrospective information and some information on O'Brien that others made not have previously known. Ralston does mention the Simpsons tribute and how good it was, and Harryhausen's reaction when he first saw Kong is priceless. There is an interesting exchange between the two, where Harryhausen says that "everything they do today is remaking the wheel," where Ralston adds, "and they keep making it worse." It's a nice complement to the film. Trailers of the films that Cooper has directed or produced follows, eight in all, namely Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and a couple of John Ford films, including Fort Apache and The Searchers.
Disc Two's bonus material may seem short on the surface, but the information packed on them is so substantial that it's overwhelming. In a good way, of course. Starting things off, there's an hour-long profile on Cooper that is narrated by Alec Baldwin. In a nutshell, Cooper was pronounced dead from battles in World War II, but in actuality, he survived a dogfight against huge odds, and landed his plane with his wounded gunner in back, using his elbows and knees, because his extremities had been severely burned. He survived one POW camp, went onto Poland to feed the war's hungry, was captured again and sent to another POW camp, where he escaped and made it back to America. From there, he made numerous films like the ones mentioned earlier, and even helped to launch the Technicolor process in the '30s. Later, he re-enlisted in the Second World War, where he befriended the legendary director Ford. When the two decided to end their collaboration in the '50s, Cooper launched a then-new technology called Cinerama. The guy's life was simply amazing, and the requisite interviews from surviving family members and historians shows you just how full his life was.
The meat of the material is the Peter Jackson-produced documentary entitled RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, the 8th Wonder of the World. The seven-part feature runs at just over two and a half hours, and features interviews with contemporary film figures like Jackson, and other directors, specifically John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) and Joe Dante, along with special effects experts like Harryhausen, Rick Baker, and historian Rudy Behlmer. The seven parts break down as follows, times are approximate:
Part 1: The Origins of King Kong (14 minutes): This is a look at Cooper's inspirations for making the film, which were remarkably similar to Cooper's real-life adventures through Africa. The piece focuses more on the film than it does on Cooper, but some of the stories are recycled from the feature on Cooper earlier on the disc. It's a decent look at the "preproduction" of the film regardless.
Part 2: Willis O'Brien and Creation (23 minutes): Part biographical look at O'Brien, mostly technical dissertation on his work, many of the present-day peers reflect on just how hard all of the stop motion and other techniques O'Brien used were, and how they set the tone for a lot of visual effects styles today. O'Brien's films were sponsored by Thomas Edison at one point, and his work on the 1925 version of The Lost World was so good, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented the film to a group as documentary footage, which most of them believed. Jackson first starts to appear in length in this part of the documentary, and possesses a lot of knowledge on O'Brien and Cooper, and discusses both quite well. O'Brien's Creation footage is a separate feature on the disc, with Harryhausen's commentary.
Part 3: Cameras Roll on Kong, the 8th Wonder (13 minutes): The film The Most Dangerous Game was produced on many of the same sets as Kong, and the footage is in here. A brief look at writer Edgar Wallace is discussed, along with how his initial drafts turned out before Cooper finished the rewrites (Wallace died just before production started).
Part 4: A Milestone in Visual Effects (41 minutes): Here's where the rubber meets the road, as the specific effects and shots are discussed in even more detail, and the effect the shots had on the filmmakers of Jackson's remake. A lot of people from Jackson's WETA workshop talk about the film, and some of the initial sets were reconstructed as a de facto pre-visualization for the new Kong. A shot featuring the stop motion shows how arduous it was, along with the perils they presented, and does make you appreciate how hard it must have been to pull the 1933 Kong off. This piece is the best of the bunch, the fact that it's the longest is pure coincidence.
Part 5: The Passion, Sound and Fury (17 minutes): Star Wars sound engineer Ben Burtt discusses the sound design, effects and score behind the original Kong, and has a lot of archived interview footage with sound designer Murray Spivack. Max Steiner's score is discussed in detail, specifically the production of the music and its impact on future scores:
Part 6: The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence (36 minutes): Essentially focuses on the excision of it from the film, and Jackson's efforts to restore it in some manner or fashion. The other scenes that were deleted from the final cut through the years are talked about too, and the spider pit sequence is discussed in detail by Jackson, who seems to be as big an expert on the original film as there is. He's even got one of the stop motion figures from the film, and X-rayed it in order to look at the internal structure, as WETA reconstructed every aspect of the creatures. A scene with Jackson, Darabont and Baker watching the film as a prelude for the scene is cool, along with some humorous production stuff too. The last 6 minutes are the recreated sequence Jackson did, in black and white and with stop motion animation. This individual film is included as a separate bonus on the disc.
Part 7: King Kong's Legacy (14 minutes): Obviously, the characters of today talk about how the film impacted their careers. The older folks remember what it did at the time and what it's done since then, the newer ones talk about what it all means, and what it meant at the time too.
So you see, even though there are only two feature-length featurettes, the information is loaded on both, and quite honestly, I learned more from those two features than some three and four disc collections. And since half of this review is devoted to the information on the second disc, it's almost imperative that you check them out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Admittedly, some of the material on the disc seems to be an advertisement for the upcoming Jackson remake, which is fine, but any questions about lack of extra material are from those who didn't really watch them. The rating for the extras is based on quality, not necessarily content.
This is probably as comprehensive a look you will get on King Kong that is actually available. Hopefully, luck (and the release of any Kong archives that Jackson has) will help flush out an even fuller release, but there are no complaints here. Warner has another colossal-sized hit in its video division.
Not guilty, a thousand times over. The case is dismissed and the court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Visual Effects Artists Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, with Archived Interview Footage from Merian Cooper and Fay Wray
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