Judge Patrick Naugle often dreams of a giant gorilla falling in love with him.
Our reviews of King Kong (1933) (published December 5th, 2005), 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), and King Kong (2005) (Blu-ray) (published January 23rd, 2009) are also available.
"Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast."—Carl Denham, King Kong
He is quite possibly the most famous leading man to ever grace the silver screen. Though it's been almost three quarters of a century since his passing, he has had a wide influence on the way movies are made, how special effects are utilized, and both domestic and international banana sales. The world wasn't ready for his enormous talent, but they got him anyways. He is shrouded in myth and legend.
He is: KING KONG.
To celebrate the release of director Peter Jackson's new remake of the 1933 classic King Kong, Warner Brothers has released a new four-DVD collection featuring King Kong (including a bonus disc), the quickie sequel Son of Kong and the action flick Mighty Joe Young.
Facts of the Case
Just for fun, a description of King Kong as seen through the eyes of a stoner surfer from California:
"Oh man, you gotta see this movie! It's about a giant monkey that totally lays the smack down on New York City. This gnarly movie-makin' dude Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) goes to Femur Island, err, Ribcage Island—oh wait, no it was Skull Island! Dang, I knew that!—to make his newest flick with some hot babe named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). While they're on the island they meet these totally bogus tribesmen who dance around with chicken bones in their noses…mmmmm, chicken. Anyways, that Ann chick is captured and offered up as some weird sacrifice to King Kong, who turns out to be a totally awesome six billion foot ape who destroys everything in his path. Righteous! They take Kong to the big city where he breaks loose and ends up scaling the Sears Tower, or the Twin Towers, or some tower, and then, haha! Dude, I DO NOT want to spoil it for you. You just gotta see the movie to find out. Hang ten, suckers!"
Next, a description of Son of Kong as seen through the eyes of a rude New York construction worker:
"I ain't got time for this crap, but I'm gonna do it anyways. So that Kong jackass, what's-his-name, fell from 'da Empire States Building and put a giant pothole in the street. What a $*#&$^head—guess who's gonna have to clean that *$#^#% up? That's right: us city workers; as if we don't get paid enough as it is. So, that Carl Denham guy—the jerk who was responsible for bringing Kong to the Bronx—has more legal problems than Mike Jackson wandering around Disneyland cause everyone's suing him for millions of dollars. So he takes off for Skull Island with some new broad (Helen Mack) to find some rumored treasure hidden somewhere in 'da jungle. But like any butt-nut who doesn't know when to quit, he runs into Kong's son, who I guess is named Kong, Jr. I wonder if that's like Donkey Kong, Jr.? Man, I loved dat' video game. Anyhow, Denham runs around the island in search of some treasure, or something like that, and meets little Kong. This time, however, Kong is friendly 'cause Denham helped him get outta some quicksand pit. Kong gets into all kinds of scrapes with a bunch-a creatures on that island and Denham and his woman run around screamin' their heads off. And that's about it—there ain't much more to this story. Now get the *$^# outta here, I got some jack-hammering to do, buddy!"
Finally Mighty Joe Young as seen through the eyes of an Australian Outbacker (ala The Crocodile Hunter):
"G'day, mate! Just watched that little movie Mighty Joe Young. Crikey, what a rip-off! I mean, it was good and all but it's just a stinkin' knockoff of the original King Kong. So basically it's the same type story, with King Kong bein' replaced by this Joe Young bloke. See, you have this young girl named Jill—she's a fine filly if I've ever saw one—and as a tyke she buys a little ape from some wandering salesmen. Jill—who's no bush pig herself—raises the ape from a baby and he grows into this massive animal of destruction. Savvy Business guy Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong)—who seems like a dingbat but is a pretty honest Joe—gets Jill to bring Joe to the States and puts him in his traveling carnival show. She's a beaut for a while, but then Joe goes bananas . But not to worry—this movie was made in the 1940s, and in the end it'll all turn out to be apples! My only complaint is that at no point did I hear the phrase 'a dingo ate my baby'.' What a crock!"
Much has been written about the original 1933 King Kong; in fact, our own Ryan Keefer has written up an extensive review on the film. My personal two cents (for what it's worth, which after seventy years isn't much) is that it's a grand old monster movie that shows both equal parts its age and its influence. In a way this film has become critic-proof. Yes, the special effects by Willis O'Brien are creaky and often laughable. In fact, I couldn't help but chuckle as Kong wrestled with a large salamander-like creature (I kept thinking of how speedy the snakes in Anaconda are, and how lumbering this particular creature is).
However, even when you can tell the effects aren't real—which is most of the time—you're still in awe of the time and patience involved in their creation; O'Brien's Kong gives a palpable performance that is scary, enthralling, and touching, all at the same time. The performances and dialogue sometimes border on hammy; phrases like, "We're millionaires, boys. I'll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it'll be up in lights on Broadway!" sound straight out of the flapper era. Yet taken as a whole, King Kong is a monumental picture, still fun to watch decades after its original theatrical run.
Sadly, where King Kong succeeds is exactly where Son of Kong fails. The film—padded at only a little over an hour—isn't exactly a great fantasy thriller, though I will admit it's not the worst sequel ever made (I'll save that award for Day of the Dead 2: Contagium). It's as if the makers of the original King Kong felt guilty they had made King Kong into a monster. So, this time around the spawn of Kong (I like that title better: Spawn of Kong) is fluffy, cute and cuddly—the exact opposite of what his poppa was. When Carl Denham finds baby Kong on Skull Island, he saves him from drowning in a pool of quicksand and bandages his wounds. This in turn creates a new Kong—a kinder, gentler beast that looks like he should have suction cups fixed to his paws and staring out the back window of some soccer mom's minivan.
Aside of the fact that Kong doesn't appear until the movie is almost three-quarters of the way over—this is like making a movie touted as a Tom Cruise vehicle, then having him do a cameo the last ten minutes of the picture—the story is flaccid and uninspired. It's obvious this film was rushed into production: it was released the same year as the original King Kong. The acting is on par with the original film, but without a fun script and a truly awe-inspiring ending (Kong's ascent up the Empire States building), Son of Kong comes off as a copy of a far better original. Baby Kong is no King Kong, Helen Mack (as the film's new damsel-in-distress) is no Fay Wray, and though it hardly needs to be said, Son of Kong is certainly no King Kong.
At least I can say that Mighty Joe Young gets to the goods long before Son of Kong does. A few points of interest distinguish Mighty Joe Young from the other Kong films. For starters, the stop motion effects appear smoother and less fuzzy than the previous two films. Joe's fluidity is solidly due to Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen's masterful puppetry (Harryhausen would also work on the late '60s action flick The Valley of Gwangi, which shares the same spirit as Might Joe Young). One effects sequence, involving Joe and a caged lion, is far better than anything from the previous 1930s versions. While the story is really just a rehash of King Kong (folks seeking fortune and glory bring a wild, gigantic ape to the big city with disastrous results), it's still a fun romp for kids and adults alike, and far better than Son of Kong.
Cinematic monkey nepotism runs rampart throughout Mighty Joe Young; the film was produced by King Kong creator Merian C. Cooper and also stars Kong's Robert Armstrong, a bit older but none the wiser (in the original film he played adventure-seeking filmmaker Carl Denham, and his role in Mighty Joe Young is different only in name). There are other actors to be found, though they are of little consequence; the sole reason to seek out Mighty Joe Young is for the special effects sequences. Director Earnest B. Schoedsack (who also helmed the other two monkey movies) shows a sturdier hand here with the action; this is just a flat out fun film that seems geared more towards kids than adults, and it works all the better for it.
All three of these films—King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young—are a fine addition to any movie buff's collection. Of course, the crown jewel of the set is the original King Kong, the minor stinker is Son of Kong (which is, admittedly, worth seeing just for context to the original) with Mighty Joe Young hovering somewhere in the middle. At around thirty bucks, your hard earned money will go towards a piece of cinematic history. How can you possibly go wrong with that?
All three films—King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young—are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, their original aspect ratios. King Kong looks good, but not great—considering the source elements and the age of the film, it's no surprise that the transfer isn't as crisp as one might hope. The fact of this also lies in the reality that many of the scenes in King Kong are filmed against other filmed back screens, making for an often murky looking image. However, rest assured that this is the best King Kong has ever looked, and the folks who did the clean-up work did the best they could, given the circumstances.
Son of Kong, released the same year as King Kong, isn't much better. Like its poppa, Son of Kong suffers from a far amount of dirt, grain and other imperfections that often mar the picture. However, these inconsistencies aren't as prevalent as King Kong (or at least that's how it felt to me). The black and white image is solidly rendered with the usual defects…a chip off the old block!
Finally there's Mighty Joe Young, the best looking transfer of the three films. This is due to the fact that the film is newer by fifteen years in comparison to the two Kong films. The transfer looks slightly better—the black and white image is crisper and more detailed than the previous films. Overall, fans of the film will be happy to see it restored to its former black and white glory.
The soundtracks on King Kong, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young are all presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono in English. While I can't say that any of these mixes will move mountains—they're all flat with some distortion—the good news is that each respective mix is a great representation of what the films sounded like more than fifty years ago (in other words, don't go in expecting any surround sounds or directional effects). King Kong sounds the best it has in years, though that doesn't mean it's great. There were times when I strained to hear the dialogue from the actors, especially when Kong was in the frame. Otherwise, all three of these sound mixes are identical to one another. All three films also included English, French and Spanish subtitles.
The following extra features are included on this four-disc set:
King Kong: Disc one of the original Kong features a commentary track with visual effects legends Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, plus archival interview excerpts from Merian C. Cooper, Fay Wray and other filmmaker participants. Considering the fact that Warner used folks like Cooper and Wray on this track, it's no surprise that it's an informative, in-depth look at the making and historical importance of King Kong. Also included on disc one is a gallery of trailers for various Merian C. Cooper films, including King Kong, Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Searchers, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, Flying Down To Rio, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Disc two of King Kong includes a nearly hour-long documentary titled "I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper." Narrated by actor Alec Baldwin, this extra explores the career of Cooper, an adventurous filmmaker who was both a cinematic genius and pioneer. Even better is the feature "RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eight Wonder of the World." Running over two and a half hours, this comprehensive look at the making of a classic includes interviews with multiple historians, filmmakers (including Peter Jackson, who is helming the remake), actors, technicians, special effects artists, and more. Spread out between seven chapters ("The Origins of King Kong," "Willis O'Brien and Creation," "Cameras Roll on Kong, the Eighth Wonder," "A Milestone in Visual Effects," "Passion, Sound and Fury," "The Mystery of the Lost Spider Pit Sequence," and "King Kong's Legacy"), this is a near definitive look at what it took to bring King Kong to the big screen and its continuing impact on sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies. Finally there is some original creation test footage of Kong with commentary by effects guru Ray Harryhausen.
Son of Kong: The only extra viewers get on this disc is a full frame theatrical trailer for Son of Kong.
Mighty Joe Young: Included on this disc is an insightful (if lackluster, when compared to Kong) commentary track by Terry Moore and special effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, two featurettes ("A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers" and "Ray Harryhausen and Might Joe Young") about stop-motion animation (the Chiodo siblings made the goofy cult classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space) and Harryhausen's work on Mighty Joe Young, and a theatrical trailer for the film.
I am very happy with how this four-disc set turned out. Warner has pulled out most (if not all) of the stops to produce a great two-disc edition of King Kong—fans will lap up the documentaries and commentary tracks and savor the fact we finally have Kong on DVD! Though Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young pale by comparison, both are still nice to have for those who want the complete history of King Kong. Recommended.
Kong say, "go buy DVDs now! Grrrrrrr!"
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, King Kong
Perp Profile, King Kong
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, King Kong
• Commentary Track by Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, Plus Interview Excerpts by Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
Scales of Justice, Son Of Kong
Perp Profile, Son Of Kong
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Son Of Kong
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Mighty Joe Young
Perp Profile, Mighty Joe Young
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Mighty Joe Young
• Commentary Track by Terry Moore and Special Effects Veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Naugle; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.