HD DVD Title: King Kong
Screen format: 1080p 2.35:1
First theatrical release:
Previously released on DVD/BluRay: Widescreen and 2 disk collector’s editions 3/2005
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Adrian Brody, Jack Black, Naomi Watts, and Andy Serkis as Kong
Sound Formats: English, Spanish and French Doly Digital Plus 5.1
Length: 3 hours 8 minutes
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
(Note that portions of this review are adapted and expanded from my previous review of the 2 disk collector’s edition DVD set)
As the third telling of the King Kong story, very few moviegoers will be surprised by the plot, which boils down to a modern rendition of the Beauty and the Beast fable. For the three people who have not see the original: King Kong is an action adventure tale told in 3 acts, set in 1933. The story starts and ends in a well realized New York City and features a journey to the fictional Skull Island as the main body of the story. Out of work Vaudevillian actress Ann Darrow (Watts) is lured to the adventure of a lifetime by a shady movie producer (Black), enticed by the prospect of meeting her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Brody). On reaching Skull Island, the cast and crew meet fearsome prehistoric creatures including the titular Kong, a 25 foot tall giant ape who is King of his domain. Kong is offered Ann as sacrifice by the primitive inhabitants of his island, who have kidnapper her. It is her rescue and his subsequent capture and their return to NYC that makes up the body of the picture.
The solid ensemble cast nails their parts with sincerity that is rare in a heavy action movie. Naomi Watts is simply radiant as Ann Darrow, Jack Black’s scheming producer Carl Denham is one part mogul, one part Napoleon, and Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll gives life to the everyman hero. Smaller roles are memorably portrayed, including Andy Serkis as Lumpy the Chef and Lobo Chan as Choy. Once again, Serkis’ role behind the 3D imagery cannot be underestimated; it is his very human performance in the ape role that gives Kong extraordinary life.
While I am reluctant to reference the 1976 version of King Kong by director John Guillerman, I am a huge fan of the 1933 original which was produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper. What this 2005 version has going for it over those versions rests mostly in the talents of its cast and crew, and the tremendous technological advances which have come about since those earlier releases.
I was fortunate enough to view King Kong early in its release cycle in 2005 in a well equipped theater, joining a near capacity crowd. Despite the optimal conditions, I wasn’t immediately taken with the film, though I had been looking forward to Mr. Jackson’s follow up to his amazingly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Since that time, I have had a chance to view the excellent box set of the 1933 release and think about what worked and what didn’t work for me with this telling of the story. Revisiting it in my own home theater, first via the 2 disk collector’s edition DVD set and subsequently on this HD-DVD, has led to a lot of new perspectives for me, and I now find a lot to love in this film.
My major conclusion is that over the last 30+ years I have been used to seeing the story of King Kong told on the small screen, and in the privacy of my own home, which led to a lot of the disappointment for me in the theater experience. I expected a lot of changes to the story, and I now believe that those repeated viewings I had of the prior versions may have worked against my enjoying this new version.
Viewing this film on my own screen has led to quite a softening of those criticisms for me; I feel that this is one of those film experiences that, despite its length, is meant to be viewed multiple times to really appreciate. While I don’t believe that the younger viewers who are first experiencing the Kong story will have the opportunity to have endless replays of the Kong (and Godzilla) films on every Thanksgiving like I did as a kid, the availability of it on DVD and HD-DVD ensures that a repeat viewing is simply a rack selection away for most people. While King Kong was not among my favorite movies of 2005, it is more than the sum of its parts and the DVD releases and this HD-DVD soundly beat the theater experience I had, which is saying a lot.
Sound Quality: 5/5
King Kong is clearly a movie designed from the start to make the most of the full range available in a surround sound experience. The key visual effects sequences are accompanied by correspondingly intense sonic sweeps, pans, and booms. The stampedes of brontosaurs and T-Rexs thud and roar with a clarity that surpasses those from Jurassic Park. The battle in the spider pit aurally puts viewers in the middle of the action, with swarms of insects coming from all corners, only to be met in return with realistic and bass driven machine gun fire. Kong himself features of range of grunts and roars that mimics real language, every sniffle, snort, chest thump and snarl adds to the impact that makes us want to believe he is real, and not just some collection of bits in a computer. While it is unlikely that anyone in 1933 ever envisioned that the sound of biplanes encircling Kong on top of the empire state building could realistically match the onscreen action, in this 2005 version it seems to have been pre-destined. It is this audio rotoscoping of strafing runs that 5.1 surround seems to have been invented for.
And yet it is Composer James Newton Howard’s simple yet charming score that holds all of these effect sequences together, taking them beyond just a string of action events and allows us to empathize with the relationship between Ann and Kong, reaching into our hearts as she grows and learns about herself and she and Kong come to understand each other. Simple piano melodies slowly build into full orchestral bombardment as action sequences ebb and flow into the more emotionally grounded ones.
I noted some disappointment from others on the forum that this disk does not feature a Dolby True-HD track. I am not convinced that such a track would have added all that much more punch to this amazing sound track, however I am hopeful that we might get such a chance to hear one in the future. I do however think that viewers who skip this release because of it are only doing themselves a disservice. Dolby Digital Plus has never sounded better.
Visual Quality: 5/5
In a word, this HD disk is stunning. Every detail of Kong comes through in dramatic fashion. I described on the net the other day that I thought I saw some dirt on the print in one sequence, but when I rolled it back it was actually a CG mosquito flitting around a T-Rexes teeth! The quality of this transfer is beyond reproach, it is impeccably sharp, dirt-less, scratch-less, free of edge enhancement, and pixel perfect as far as color rendition goes. There IS some amount of grain in many scenes, particularly in the NYC sequences, but this is film grain and matches the stock used for theatrical presentation, and I remember it quite vividly looking like this when I saw it myself at a local Cineplex, but it looks better at home!
Quite frankly, anyone who has more than minor gripes about the look of this film (and they are out there gabbing it up on the net!) will never be happy. This is about as good as you can reasonably expect films to look in the comfort of your own home.
Extra Features: 2/5
Despite being released on the same day as a 3 disk DVD package containing even more sequences than the previous 2 disk collector’s version, this HD-DVD takes a minimalist view of extras. Also note that none of the restored sequences or deleted scenes found on the 3 disk DVD are present either.
However, the extras that this disk does contain are integrated into the ‘U-Control’ scheme, meaning that you cannot navigate a menu to find any of them. To view them, you need to have the U-Control ‘bug’ on screen and click a special button when it lights up to see the extra overlaid on top of the running movie. Some people will love this feature, I personally despise it as it REQUIRES you to watch a movie a second time, skimming through it hoping desperately to find all of the sequences and not simply choosing to view them from a menu. Even if you do find one, you can’t tell before you view it really what it contains or how long it will be. This seems to me to be a technology that sounds great on paper, but in practice the old way of doing things is still so much better. I did go through about 6 of the pop up extras and found them to be interesting; I just find the mechanics of it dull and frustrating.
Since this is a single disk release I am glad that Universal focused on the audio and video quality and not extras, making this a perfect looking disk and allowing those who really want those billions of extras to go get them on SD DVD instead. You can bet that double and triple dips on this HD release will be available down the road in the future, but it is great to have a single disk at this time that looks and sounds this good, despite the loss of extras.
Overall: 4/5 (not an average)
Other than a drought of extras, my personal bias against U-control, and the actual twice rehashed plot of the movie itself, there is really very little one can complain about King Kong on HD-DVD. There is a reason why Microsoft chose this film to pack in with their brand new HD-DVD drive for the Xbox 360: it is technically perfect looking and sounding. Sure we will see bigger collector’s editions in the future, along with the boatload of extras that now fill multiple DVD releases (and hopefully eschewing or fixing the downsides of U-Control). Sure we might see a 2 disk version in the future with Dolby True HD (then again we might not!). Neither is a compelling reason to skip this disk, if you own an HD DVD drive this should be in your collection, should be the ‘go to’ disk to show off the format to friends when they want to see what HD can do, and it should help expand the HD DVD user base considerably by acting as a first ‘Killer app’ for the format. Recommended.
NOTE: I actually got my copy of this disk with the 360 drive first (Tho I reviewed it on the Toshiba A1 and my Panasonic PJ) and the box appears to be made for both French and English Speakers, tho it has spanish tracks available as well. I think this is actually identical to the retail American release otherwise, but if anyone can tell me differently I will update this thread. I DO have the retail release but havent gone through it will a fine tooth comb.