Blu Ray Title: King Kong (2005)
Disk Release Date: 1/20/2009
Rated: Unrated Extended Version and PG-13 Theatrical Cut
Screen format: 1080P High Definition Widescreen 2.35:1
First theatrical release: 2005
Previous releases on disk: Multiple, including an HDDVD release, a 2007 3 disk DVD special edition and Widescreen and 2 disk collector’s editions 3/2006
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Adrian Brody, Jack Black, Naomi Watts, and Andy Serkis as Kong
Sound Formats: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Spanish and French in DTS 5.1
Length: 3 Hours 20 minutes extended cut, 3 hours 8 mins theatrical
Subtitles:English, Spanish and French
(Note that portions of this review are adapted and expanded from my previous review of the 2 disk collector’s edition DVD set, the 3 disk collector’s edition and the HDDVD release)
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, subsequently on the HD-DVD and ultimately on this BluRay, 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 , the failed HD-DVD format, and on this stunning BluRay 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 and HD DVD releases and especially this BluRay 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 modern 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.
On this BluRay we finally get a full uncompressed encoding, which was a deal breaker for many on past releases. While it is not my way to go back and A/B the current and prior releases I thoroughly enjoyed this version tho I was surprised at how front focused the NYC scenes were at the beginning of the film, but once the cast made it to the voyager all doubtts were gone and we got back into the fully realized surround mix I had been expecting. Few will find this mix wanting although I still do not think that the uncompressed version could be chosen by many without careful and studied comparison to the prior releases head to head.
Visual Quality: 5/5
Like the HDDVD before it, the transfer on this BluRay disk is stunning. Every detail of Kong comes through in dramatic fashion. Once again I could pick out the CG mosquito flitting around a T-Rexes teeth among many other detals! 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. There is some debate whether this is the same exact transfer or not as the HD DVD, I have not personally put them head to head but I suspect any minor changes would be hard for all but the most exacting perfectionist if they are different.
Extra Features: 2/5
This BluRay is a near carbon copy of the HD-DVD in that it takes a minimalist view of extras and the features that are present are a ghost of the treasure trove found on the excellent DVD editions. None of the restored sequences or deleted scenes found on the prior 3 disk DVD are present either.
However, the extras that this disk does contain are integrated into the ‘U-Control’ scheme, meaning that menu navigation to get to them is awkward and minimal, tho perhaps a bit better than the ones on the HDDVD. As I have noted countless times, 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 a few of the picture in picture sequences and found them interesting but still not nearly what this great film deserves and I continue to find the mechanics of it dull and frustrating.
There are a few other extras to consider. First is the fact that both extended and theatrical versions are on one disk, plus there is a feature length commentary with Jackson and Co-Writer/Producer Phillipa Boyens. I haven't listened to this one yet but it hardly makes up for the absence of hours upon hours of other extras previous disks have had. Also, there is a secondary U-Control track that displays artist renderings along with the film. Whoopee! Universal also plugs some standard BDLive extras but these are all the generic ones that every disk gets (you can make your own favorite scenes, whoopie x2!) and shouldn't even be listed on the box as anything special.
Universal is to be commended for using the space on a single disk to add a new sound encoding but seriously, the lack of features is a huuuuuge disappointment. When brand new films get an embarrassing number of extras and Kong gets nada, there is something terribly terribly wrong.
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 Blu, especially given that there is finally a full uncompressed sound track. I suppose the third time will be the charm for the 2005 Kong, until then this disk is going to be all we have if we want the film looking and sounding it’s best. I’m reluctant to give it honors with this big of an issue, but still, it’s Jackson, its Kong, and it’s on Blu, it has to be: Recommended.