Although a bit bleary-eyed afterward, Judge Dennis Prince would gladly pull another all-nighter to spend this many hours with a filmmaker, his film, and his unending passion to share it with everyone.
Our reviews of King Kong (1933) (published December 5th, 2005), King Kong (1933) (Blu-Ray) (published September 28th, 2010), 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.
"…adventure, fame, the thrill of a lifetime, and a long sea voyage."
Perhaps the most epic endeavor of modern film history, Peter Jackson's King Kong has been routinely lauded and loathed for its grand execution. Clearly, such an undertaking—to re-imagine the story of Kong—had to be larger than life. It has been cited for decades as "the film" that had inspired so many prolific filmmakers and cinema artisans. Peter Jackson is no exception here, one of countless many who, in his boyhood, had similarly attempted his own crude Kong adventure armed only with cardboard, modeling clay, and his folks' 8mm camera. Then again, Jackson was very different from all the rest given the fact that he would somehow retain, refine, and ultimately realize his youthful dream, becoming the one who would properly honor the grand and great ape for modern audiences. For his tireless effort, he has served as keeper of the flame—the soul of the legendary Kong—and perhaps will likewise inspire the next generation of soon-to-be filmmakers. His has been a journey of mammoth scope, yet one that he seemed born to pursue. King Kong is a huge task, an exhaustive trek, and it has made for a long, long film. And so it had to be because to deliver anything less would be to cheapen the impact of this cinematic icon and surely rob current-day viewers of a film adventure the likes of which they've likely never experienced before.
Peter Jackson remembers the impact the 1933 original had upon him, and you can see how he has carefully preserved every aspect of his own awe and reverence in this new King Kong—Deluxe Extended Edition DVD. Although some might renew their own litany of complaints that an overlong picture has been further protracted to an unbearable running time, the film actually works in the same manner as a repeated commute—the first trip seems lengthy as it is an encounter through unfamiliar territory, while subsequent voyages seem less tedious and, most importantly, allow for an enhanced absorption of captivating details previously overlooked. With this new DVD and Jackson's slightly extended cut of the picture, we learn more about how a now-simplistic stop-motion adventure affected a creative young boy and, most relevant, how today's cynical culture still craves to pursue an imaginative impulse.
Facts of the Case
There's scant need for reprising the plot points of this particular screen adventure since it has become such a pervasive element in our pop culture awareness. The original RKO production has practically become the stuff of common knowledge, the tale of an over-eager filmmaker who skillfully, though not entirely honestly, coerces a ship's crew and a naïve girl to travel to an uncharted island to behold a thing never seen by civilized man. It's ambition that lures the filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black, School of Rock), to capture a mythical beast on film while it's the very struggle for human survival that taxes all those he has involved in his dangerous quest. But when the marauding Kong captures the lovely blond-haired Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts, Ellie Parker), it is the ensuing peril that reveals the true character and motivations of Denham, the screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, Hollywoodland), Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann, The Celestine Prophecy), and the rest. It's a journey none had ever imagined and that culminates into a climax that not even the most fertile-minded filmmaker could ever have conceived.
Certainly, King Kong did not prove itself to be a unanimous favorite among critics. Variety panned the picture, claiming it was rife with "flaws in the gigantic animals on view" that performed amid a "phony atmosphere." While the film succeeded in providing a look into an imagined world, the likes that had never been seen by sophisticated film audiences, the critique charged that it was all for naught. Of course, this particular panning of the film was in reference to the 1933 original, it too having to withstand the onslaught of the taunting typewriters like so many swooping bi-planes.
Upon the release of Jackson's 2005 rendition, Variety again weighed in to openly lament the grandiose nature of the new version while exalting the original as "one of the sensations of its era" whose "special effects set a standard that went unsurpassed for decades." It's not surprising to see such a turnabout of opinion—the original Kong being given its well-deserved respect—but such lauding has only been achieved over time and after proper digestion and internalization of what had just flickered past the viewer's eyes.
To view the original King Kong today, it's fruitless to try to resist the appeal of the stop-motion ape. Billed ambiguously as "Chief Technician," effects pioneer Willis O'Brien amazingly transcended the rubber, fur, and steel skeletal structure of the tabletop model, miraculously imbuing a very soul into the embattled colossus. O'Brien effectively emoted rage, curiosity, cuteness, and, ultimately, pathos into his Kong. While there's no denying the process utilized for animating the ape—and that prompts jaded viewers to decry the result as "so fake"—by the time the film has reached its climax, most onlookers will have forgotten they simple trickery at play, fully engaged in the plight of Kong. The original film, of course, is a classic because of its technology and the deft ability the pioneering filmmakers utilized to tell their compelling story.
To undertake a retelling of King Kong is an audacious effort, naturally, but one for which Jackson seemed destined. Unlike the 1976 debacle underwritten by Dino DeLaurentiis, Jackson's film, from its bare beginnings, was appropriately identified as the first qualifiable "remake" of the classic. Yet, unlike so many other pictures today that literally re-make previous successful films, practically shot for shot (see 1998's Psycho and 2006's The Omen), Jackson approached his film with the intent to flesh out the subtext and to bring into full view the details that occur in between the spoken lines and as previously obscured by scene fades and time lapses. Seemingly not interested in simply updating key sequences or "modernizing" this great American fable, Jackson provides his very personal interpretation of everything that occurred within the span of the original adventure, especially the gritty and grimy details of a Depression era New York, a weather-beaten tramp steamer vessel, an untamed and barely-trodden island, and—most important—an undeniable bond that developed between a beauty and a beast. Jackson filled in all of the gaps that he saw in the original, not in a manner to castigate the first film but, rather, to bring to life the additional imaginings that he—and many other like-minded enthusiasts—perceived at work just below what was visible. Unquestionably, this is his film, yet one that he is so eager to share with others of a same passion.
As for the technical merits of this new DVD release from Universal, it is quite sound. The transfer, framed at 2.35:1, is as crisp and colorful as you saw in the previous two-disc release (it requires two discs to present it at the same bitrate given the addition of the running commentary and accompanying extras). The image is beautifully rendered, all black levels appropriately managed and contrast skillfully controlled with a color palette that delivers perhaps the lushest images we yet seen in the digital medium. The island sequences alternate between the shadowy environs to the starkly sunlit exteriors with ease and without any annoying compression artifacts. This is a near-reference quality transfer (although, in the case of this particular film, I would definitely give the nod to the simultaneously-released HD DVD version, one that visually and audibly dwarfs this fine SD-formatted edition). The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is definitely energetic with the low end perfectly taxed. It's odd that the track wasn't presented in a DTS version, although that could likely be a constraint of disc space and with deference to a majority of home viewers who may not be properly equipped to decode such a presentation. To that end, the audio does feel just a bit confined by comparison (again, refer to the Dolby Digital-Plus track found on the HD DVD edition).
So what of the additional footage—13 minutes of it—that has been restored in this extended version? It's a mixed bag, truthfully, and it's rather apparent that Jackson himself would admit it as such. For all of the material that he had intended and much that he filmed, he recognizes that he was still beholden to keep a pace and a manageable running time for his final vision. Nonetheless, he's also keenly and respectfully aware that many film enthusiasts—from the casual viewer, the amateur student, and the professional scholar—crave a full disclosure of every aspect of his creative process and would pine for even the most obscure minutiae that was spawned from he and his team's efforts. While this particular edition contains a whopping 38 minutes of deleted scenes not integrated within the re-cut film, Jackson has shown discipline in the material he chose to actually intersperse within the sanctioned 188-minute theatrical version. The first bit of added material is the interesting yet superfluous "Ceratops attack." While it's good to see additional creature effects, this one seems severely shoe-horned into the commencement of the search for Ann and definitely feels premature to the rest of the film's pacing. It's nice to see but it's also apparent why it was appropriately excised. Most notable, of course, is the inclusion of the raft sequence in which Denham, Driscoll, and the Venture crew are assailed by a hungry sea beast (not to mention some surprising additional water-borne nasties). The footage, running for a suitable six minutes, is likely to have some decrying its absence from the theatrical cut since it features a voracious creature—the Piranhadon—and some nice twists and surprises. The underwater footage utilizes the same dry-for-wet process used in the LOTR pictures, though it isn't entirely convincing here. The balance of additional scenes includes extended sequences and sub-plot elements that certainly weren't crucial to the released picture yet, again, is welcome material for film fans. In the end, the additional material doesn't much detract from the overall narrative and actually fills in a few points of information (as in informing us exactly what it was that Wetasaur was devouring as Ann stumbled into its sights). As a much-appreciated touch, the DVD's scene selection menus clearly identify the various added and extended elements.
Perhaps the most fitting application of the terms "deluxe" and "extended" goes to the bounty of production material, that which easily accounts for six hours of viewing time. Too big? Too much? Perhaps some will shift uneasily at the prospect of indulging in such an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes exposé yet, despite its film school content, it still captivating to watch. Again, Jackson shows an unrivaled generosity as he reveals more than any of his peers before him, almost eager to share how the magician performs his astounding feats. Although some might call this double- or triple-dipping, especially in light of the voluminous material previously released in 2005's Peter Jackson's King Kong Production Diaries, the fact is that all of the extra features here are not repeats of what was previously seen (a point that Jackson emphasizes in one of his many introductory pieces here). Therefore, you'll find so much more material at hand here that it almost defies concise description within the limits of this disc review. Nonetheless, here's a teasing taste of what's on board:
• Deleted Scenes—An element of the "King Kong Archives" that spans all three discs, this is a collection of 38 minutes of deleted footage that was left on the cutting room floor. Jackson introduces each sequence with explanation of why it was removed. There isn't much truly salient material here, yet it is interesting to see that much of the footage was never completed, green and blue screen plainly visible. These scenes, however, do provide additional insight into the filmmaking process.
• The Eight Blunder of the World—Here's the much-anticipate gag reel that offers looks at scenes that didn't go quite right, lines that can't seem to ever be delivered properly, and even a bit of hijinks offered from the effects crew (Kong doing a cannonball jump into the Skull Island inlet?). The actors cut up quite a bit but beware a plethora of risqué language and barely-censored f-bombs.
• The Missing Production Diary—Day #59—This is a diary entry that hadn't been seen online at www.kongisking.net nor released in the aforementioned Peter Jackson's King Kong Production Diaries release. This tongue-in-cheek entry jabs at the actors and their obsession to view video replays of the just-completed shoot. This is delivered as an easy-to-find Easter egg element from within the "King Kong Archives" material.
• King Kong Homage—If you enjoyed picking out the various nods and references to the original film found in Jackson's treatment but wondered if you found them all, here they are in a complete featurette.
• Pre-Visualization Animatics—The "King Kong Archives" material continues with a lengthy amount of computer-generated storyboards, such as they are, many that were utilized virtually as envisioned in translation to the finished sequences.
• "The Present"—This is a fun little ditty in which Andy Serkis concocts an idea for a short film that will reveal the cast members' conflict as each strives to acquire a mysterious pink-papered package. The result, of course, was this was a film they played to Jackson on his birthday, ultimately presenting him with the pink box and the unseen gift inside.
• Trailers—Here we get a look at the theatrical teaser trailer (including footage that was ultimately to become a deleted scene), the regular trailer, and the Cinemedia trailer. These are each presented in anamorphic format with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks.
• Weta Collectibles—Here's a rather blatant promotional piece that still manages to inform despite its clearly commercial intent. We're offered a look at the various collectible maquettes and other statuary that was developed to coincide with the release of the picture. Interestingly, Jackson reveals that his Weta Workshop crew would sculpt and finish elements for the actual film during one part of the workday, then switch over to prepare these exclusive sculptures that would be offered to collectors.
• ROM: 1996 & 2005 Scripts—Just as it implies, here are the complete scripts, viewable from a PC, for Jackson's original intent back in 1996 plus the revised screenplay for 2005's finished film.
• Introduction by Peter Jackson—The director speaks specifically to this three-DVD edition and guides you through the various elements you'll find on each disc.
• Recreating the Eight Wonder: The Making of King Kong—Yes, this is the mammoth three-hour documentary, subdivided into eight distinct topical elements, that offers even more information about the production. Amazingly (and as promised from Jackson himself), this does not contain any information previously released online or on disc. It's another long journey into the deep recesses of the filmmaking process, but it's still quite captivating.
• Conceptual Design Video Galleries—Here we're presented with a plethora of pre-production sketches, paintings, sculptures, and CGI wireframe-to-finished-character animations.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's no point in drawing arguments based upon the length of this film. Much like Gone With the Wind, it is what it is and shouldn't be attacked for presenting itself in expanded length for the sake of appeasing increasingly-impatient film audiences (or greedy film exhibitors). Frankly, if you enjoy the subject matter here and are pleasantly entertained by visual delights, the film runs just fine. If you can't sit still or feel you must be doing something else, then King Kong is not the picture for you.
Previous arguments have been duly levied in regards to the casting of the film and won't be rehashed here. Yes, some of the casting choices and the subsequent results are significantly different that those of the 1933 original; to compare the two, while interesting, really offers little of substance to ponder in fierce or, alternately, fanciful "what if" musings.
As for this three-disc edition, the packaging of the standard set is less than would be hoped, that in appropriate comparison to the previous Peter Jackson's King Kong Production Diaries as well as in light of the various LOTR releases. The oversized Amaray keep case serves its utilitarian purpose but not much else. The deluxe gift set edition (which is boxed with a limited Kong figurine) contains the same three-disc case as this and is not an upgrade in form or function.
It seems as though we've been immersed in King Kong for such a long time now and some have deemed it excessive. However, if you're an enthusiast of this particular fantasy adventure and/or are a faithful follower of Peter Jackson, his craft, and his vision, then you're probably still not glutted from the near-overwhelming amount of material. For purveyors of all things Kong, this is simply more of the good stuff they some dearly crave. King Kong is an epic adventure and, as such, is well deserving of this level of attention. We can be thankful for the unending generosity that Jackson continues to display as he welcomes us into his very special world.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens
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