- May 7, 2001
Two-Disc Collector’s Edition
Studio: Warner Brothers
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 104 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
Audio: DD Mono
Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
Package: 3 panel Digipak housed in a hinged collectable tin which also contains various supplements (see below).
It is no longer the 1930’s. By today's slick standards, King Kong has aged, and it's debatable how kind the passage of years has been. Many rip-offs, one remake (Dino DeLaurentis' campy 1976 version), and films like Jurassic Park have come and gone. While the original King Kong still sits upon the throne of our memories, advances in technology and acting have dated various aspects of the production. Still, in watching these old black-and-white images which were assembled with craftsmanship and care long before computers made this stuff easy, it's impossible not to feel some sense of awe at what was accomplished those many years ago. In many ways, Kong is still king.
When released in 1933, King Kong was greeted with unprecedented amazement. State-of-the-art visual effects, an entertaining story, and a touching ending combined to bequeath upon this film the coveted label of a "classic." In its era -- and, indeed, for decades after -- no monster movie (whether made in the U.S., Japan, or elsewhere) approached the lofty perch of this one. The title character, the creation of stop-motion effects wizard Willis O'Brien (mentor to Ray Harryhausen), captivated audiences and started a world-wide love affair with a giant ape.
The plot is reasonably straightforward -- not a bad thing for a monster movie. A film crew headed by Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong) arrives at the mysterious Skull Island to do some location shooting for a new picture. However, the dark-skinned natives take a liking to Denham's leading lady, Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray), and kidnap her as an offering to their god, Kong. Just as the cavalry, led by Denham and a hunky sailor named Jack Driscoll (played by Bruce Cabot), rushes in to save Ann, Kong - a 25-foot high ape (actually, his size varies throughout the film) - makes his appearance, snatching his prize from the altar and heading off into the jungle.
Denham, Driscoll, and a search party set off in pursuit. Various encounters with Kong and a series of prehistoric relics decimate the group. In the meantime, we get to see battles between the giant ape and several dinosaurs. Eventually, Driscoll sneaks Ann away from Kong and, when the beast arrives at the natives' village to retrieve her, Denham uses sleeping gas to capture him.
Weeks later, a live show opens in New York City's Radio City Music Hall, with a chained Kong as the main attraction. He is, as the marquee proclaims, "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Despite Denham's best precautions, Kong breaks free on opening night, grabs Ann, wreaks havoc in the city and then climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. There, high atop New York, in one of cinema's most unforgettable moments, Kong fights a duel to the death with a group of biplanes.
The story stands up pretty well today. In fact, with the exception of a few "modernizing" changes, the basic frame was left intact for the 1976 Dino DeLaurentiis remake. Strange as it might sound, Kong is the most thoroughly explored personality in the film. Driscoll and Ann are mere types (the dashing hero and the damsel in distress), and Denham isn't given much more depth (the ruthless movie maker who's actually not such a bad guy).
The ending is, of course, the best-known part of King Kong. The scene with Kong grasping the top of the Empire State Building with one hand while swiping futilely at the attacking bi-planes with the other. Kong was king of Skull Island, but, on Manhattan Island, he is a rampaging nuisance to be dealt with. It's not so much beauty that killed the beast, as it is the unavoidable march of progress. In the world of man, a mythical beast like Kong has no place.
On a purely technical level, and to keep things in proper context given the period, it's impossible to deny that King Kong's special effects are not as polished or jaw-droppingly amazing as those featured in most modern day films. But movies are not received (or shouldn’t be) exclusively on the basis of visual technique. Computers create the monsters in modern day films, yet everything in Kong was painstakingly manipulated by hand. Identifying this makes viewing King Kong all the more special. The dinosaurs of the '90s look real; the creatures brought to life by Willis O'Brien's stop-motion look fantastical. It's possible to savor the craft that went into creating the 1933 film. By now, it has become a routine matter of digital manipulation.
King Kong also comes separately as a regular Two-Disc Special Edition in a double Amaray case which lists for $26.99 or if you are interested in a couple of the Kong sequels, The “King Kong Collection” contains not only the Two-Disc Special Edition, but also The Son Of Kong (1933) as well as Mighty Joe Young (1949). The boxed set lists for $39.92. Rarely do I get worked up about packaging or cases, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I think the Kong Collector’s Edition is perhaps one of the coolest looking items in my library. The tin is drop dead gorgeous with raised letters and characters and painted brilliantly to exude the period feel of the film. Outstanding job WB – I would love to see more of these in the future.
The Feature: 4.5/5
This is one of those examples where one must keep things in perspective when evaluating a film such as King Kong. As it is no secret, the original elements for King Kong simply don’t exist and third generational elements were relied upon to bring this film to DVD. In fact, the entire RKO library suffers from the ravages of time, over-printing and handling. Expecting Kong to look as good or better than many of the outstanding titles from the period is simply unrealistic. And for those who are familiar with the film, you are already aware and realize that you’ve probably never seen this film look all that great to begin with - ever. With all that aside, kind words must go out to Warner for a tremendous job at completing the almost impossible. This is certainly the best I have ever seen the film look.
Presented correctly in 1.33:1, King Kong looks very very nice. The first thing you may notice is grain structure. There is a fair amount of fine to medium of film grain present, however it is not excessive. The film is also slightly softer than what we might be used to however, there certainly is more than an acceptable amount of fine detail – in fact even more than I anticipated. Grayscale is adequate as blacks were reasonably deep while whites appeared just slightly murky, but fine. The level of contrast however, was excellent. It would appear the image may have been slightly windowboxed in an attempt to minimize cropping. It was not however, noticeable on a different monitor, when I tried comparing the image on an RPTV.
I anticipated more blemishes (scratches, nicks, marks etc.) but was pleasantly surprised with how clean the overall look of the film appeared. The image is mostly solid, however, there were instances of light shimmer presumably due to shrinkage issues.
Keep your expectations in check and you’ll be delighted with this film of 70+ years.
Not much to say here about the audio. It is correctly presented here in Dolby Digital Monaural and does about as good a job as anyone might expect for a film of this vintage.
Most importantly, the dialogue was always bold and intelligible. While the track is mostly clean, it does sport a light amount of hiss throughout the entirety of the film. Not distracting by any means. The overall tonality of the film seems to have been left intact.
While the terrific Steiner score sounds delightful, it is rather limited in range, no doubt due to limitations of the period. That said, I never found any part of the track overly thin or fatiguing.
While the majority of special features have been reserved for disc two, the set looks like this:
[*] First up is a Commentary by Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston with Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. Harryhausen and Ralston appear throughout with the comments of Cooper and Wray interspersed occasionally. While there is a fair amount of information to be gleaned here, both participants mainly offer their admiration and appreciation for the various scenes that appear on screen. Unfortunately Cooper and Wray’s comments are rather limited and not really all that reflective. All of the participants are introduced before they appear.
[*] The only other feature on this disc is a Merian C. Cooper Trailer Gallery. It contains the following trailers:
- King Kong (1933)
- Son Of Kong (1933)
- Flying Down To Rio (1933)
- Fort Apache (1948)
- 3 Godfathers (1948)
- Mighty Joe Young (1949)
- She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)
- The Searchers (1956)
While there are only three special features listed on Disc Two, don't let the numbers fool you - they are both extensive and absolutely chock full of Kong trivia. They look like this:
[*] I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper is a focus on the legendary Hollywood producer. This feature, produced by Kevin Brownlow for TCM is narrated by Alec Baldwin and unleashes an avalanche of information relating to Cooper starting with detailed biographical information and then focusing clearly on his film projects. Due to the success of Kong, Cooper went on to be put in charge of head of production at RKO. His career with the studio is discussed at length. His lengthy and distinguished military career is also highlighted as is the Cinerama process and Cooper’s tireless work on the process and This Is Cinerama. Slightly dry but highly informative. Duration: 56:59 minutes.
[*] RKO Production 601: The Making Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World. Without question, this feature is the crown jewel of the special features. The feature is comprised of 7 chapters, all of which make up the informative feature. The individual chapters are entitled:
1). The Origins of King Kong
2). Willis O’Brien and Creation
3). Cameras Roll On Kong; The Eighth Wonder
4). A Milestone in Visual Effects
5). Passion, Sound and Fury
6). The Mystery Of The Lost Spider Pit Sequence
7). King Kong’s Legacy
The feature can be played by individual chapters or the “Play All” feature can be selected. Director and Kong aficionado, Peter Jackson takes the lead here and offers some rather interesting insights into Willis O’Brien’s work. Based on nothing more than research and “best evidence” available known to exist, Jackson and his staff painfully re-create the lost spider pit sequence to the best of their ability. The feature itself is 35 minutes with the newly created scene available to be viewed at the end of the feature, clocking in at just over 5 minutes. Even Jackson himself states, this isn’t to be taken all that seriously, but should be classified in the “what if” category. There can be no greater effort put forward than a man who is truly passionate about his work and that is clearly demonstrated here. If, after almost 3 hours, you walk away from this wondering about a specific Kong question, an answer probably doesn’t exist. Absolutely every aspect of the film and its participants is touched upon here in this extremely comprehensive documentary. Duration: 2:38:46 hours.
[*] Creation Test Footage With Ray Harryhausen contains clips of the aborted Willis O’Brien film project, Creation (1931). The short feature is narrated by Harryhausen. Not much here but the evolution of O’Brien’s work is interesting and would go on to become of great importance for his project two years later. Duration: 4:56 minutes.
[*] And finally, various Inserts and other goodies that accompany the set include a collection of 5 reproduction 5x7 film posters, a 22-page reproduction Programme for the Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the March 24th, 1933 opening and finally, a coupon for a free 27x40 reproduction film poster (the same one that adorns the front of the tin). A fee of $3.25 is charged to cover shipping and handling. Sorry fellow Canucks… the offer is only valid in the U.S. Note: I have a U.S. copy so I can’t confirm if Canadian tins will offer the poster on this side of the border.
An absolutely amazing collection of special features that will keep you busy for an entire afternoon or evening. Very cool. Who could ask for anything more…?
Special Features: 5/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
The acting is not one of King Kong's greatest attributes. What was acceptable in 1933 is barely adequate in comparison with the top performances of today. It's a challenge to accept any of the three leads as something other than an actor reciting corny and clichéd lines. But perhaps such corniness is part of King Kong's enduring charm and allure.
Despite its various deficiencies and occasionally antiquated style, King Kong remains not only a milestone of movie-making, but a magical experience. Ultimately, the mystique of the film isn’t necessarily what it offers today, but what it has contributed during the course of the last seven decades. Watching King Kong reminds us of what movies once were and what they have the potential to be, and that's something that any newly released CGI film will never be able to do.
Despite the lack of original elements, Warner Brothers has done a tremendous job with the film in terms of the presentation and they have jazzed up the packaging and trimmed the set with a plethora of entertaining and highly informative supplements all of which amount to Kong being one of the greatest classic releases of 2005 – perhaps the best of the year. It’s been a long time coming folks but in this case, it has been worth the wait.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5 (not an average)
Release Date: November 22nd, 2005