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KING KONG
2 Disc Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Directors:  Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  November 22, 2005

"I'm going out to make the greatest picture in the world...they'll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I come back!"

Film ****

The above line was spoken in the movie King Kong by notorious director Carl Denham (Armstrong), but they might just as well have been spoken by director/producer/story writer Merian C. Cooper ABOUT King Kong.  His vision, first unleashed on audiences in 1933, did indeed give the world a spectacle it had never seen before.  Even 70 years later, it continues to thrill and inspire.

To put in perspective, King Kong was the Jurassic Park of its day:  a film that marked a quantum leap forward in special effects and how they were incorporated into storytelling.  Its intricate use of stop-motion animation, matte paintings, reverse projection photography and in-camera effects was unprecedented...at least no other movie before had combined the techniques in such new and revolutionary ways.  Think about it:  without Kong, there may have never been a Kane.

The story begins with Carl Denham, and his latest motion picture expedition.  The cast and crew don't know where they're going; only that it's a long voyage and that some very heavy armaments are involved.  The problem is that Denham needs a pretty girl as a love interest, and no agent in town will bring him one because of his secrecy and daredevil reputation.

He stumbles across Ann Darrow (the luminous Wray), and invites her for her chance at stardom, against the better judgment of the gruff first mate Jack Driscoll (Cabot, in his first screen role).  He doesn't approve of women on ships or in dangerous situations...a bit of a 1930s attitude, maybe, but as we all know, he was right in this case.

They sail to a spectacular uncharted island, where the natives all live on a tiny peninsula behind a great wall.  They live in fear of something called Kong, and as it turns out, that's what Denham is there to film.  But the natives have other ideas...spotting the pretty blonde Darrow, they stage a late night raid of the crew's ship and take her.

Ann is offered as a sacrifice to Kong, who finally makes his appearance at about the 45 minute mark (no doubt inspiring later monster movies like Jaws and Alien).  Kong, of course, is an unbelievably gigantic ape, leading Ms. Wray to utter her now all-time classic line:

"AAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!"

None too subtle, perhaps, but beautifully succinct.  I imagine 1933 audiences reacted the same way.  Hell, even in the new millennium, it's hard not to respond with awe to the big fella.  Before he shows up, the film's pacing had been deliberate and marked.  Once he appears, it's a non stop thrill ride to the very end.

Kong, of course, takes a liking to Ann, and carries her off.  In the meantime, Driscoll, Denham and the crew begin their attempt to rescue her, which leads to an incredible adventure of action and fear on the other side of the great wall.  There are beasts and prehistoric monsters galore; so many and so terrifying one can only wonder why the natives picked Kong as the one to fear...they could have had their choice.

The men deal with creatures of both land and sea, and of course, Kong himself, who, in a spectacular sequence, shakes the men off a log-bridge like they were fleas.  Kong's drive to keep Ann for himself also leads to three incredible battles with a T-Rex, an elasmosaur and a pterodactyl respectively.  Willis O'Brien cemented his legend for all time with his intricate and impressive use of stop-motion animation that brought Kong and his nemeses to life for Cooper and co-director/producer Ernest B. Shoedsack to put to film using even more tricks to make it as real as possible.

Of course, this all leads to Kong's capture and presentation as "the eighth wonder of the world" in New York, where all hell breaks loose when the big guy goes after Ann again.  Talk about a monkey on your back.

The finale atop the Empire State Building is as iconic as they come in motion pictures.  It's there where Kong meets his match with a bevy of military planes...and it's also there where we realize what a soft spot we've grown for him despite the chaos and mayhem he unleashed.  At that point, Kong is more than a monster or a special effect...he's surprisingly sympathetic.  We don't want to see him die...yet what other end is there for a king who finds himself in enemy lands?

Ironically, in this age of computer generated effects that can create anything out of thin air and make it seamless with reality, I think I appreciate the original King Kong more than ever by comparison.  CGI is incredible, but the downside for me is that I no longer marvel at motion pictures.  I go to one expecting to be wowed every time. 

In 1933, there was no such technology to make anything imaginable instantly possible.  Stop-motion animation had to be shot a frame at a time, and when combined with rear projection, the live action had to be inserted a frame at a time as well.  It took better than a hundred hours of work for one minute of screen time.  The overall result isn't entirely realistic:  without natural looking motion blurs, the action takes on a bit of a jerky, dreamlike quality that in my opinion actually heightens rather than detracts from the overall effect.  It's a fantasy picture that really FEELS like fantasy.

Even in the throes of the Great Depression, people scraped together their pocket change and went to see King Kong.  For a film to become a must-see event in a time where a quarter of the country was out of work and bread was almost a luxury item, you know it had to be something really special.  And it still is, to this day.  Kong remains the all time box office champion among monsters, and I have no doubt that no matter how far our motion picture technology takes us, he will always be King.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  Keep an eye out for co-directors Cooper and Schoedsack as pilots who gun down Kong!

BONUS TRIVIA II:  Merian C. Cooper was born here in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.

Video ***

I dare say this is the best that this 70 plus year old film has ever looked.  There are problems here and there; noticeable grain, some flicker in the margins, a scratch or spot on the print, but all of these can be forgiven as unavoidable signs of aging.  The contrast and detail levels are better than ever, and more than a few scenes are downright stunning when compared to how you remember them from previous video or television incarnations.  Kudos to Warner Bros. for a solid transfer and restoration effort.

Audio ***

I suppose Warner could have tried for a surround mix with this picture, but to be honest, I didn't miss it.  I tend to think a big digital multi-channel offering would have been more distracting than helpful.  Kong is a classic, and this presentation preserves it.  The mono offering has a few light pops and hisses here and there, which are to be expected for a film from 1933.  But overall, the dialogue is clear, and the sound effects and Max Steiner's legendary score add some dynamic punch.  Fay Wray's screams never sounded so strong. 

Features ****

Fans have waited a long time for Kong to terrorize us on DVD, and I have to say, this two disc special edition was worth the wait. 

Disc One has, in addition to the film, a terrific commentary track by special effects gurus Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, both of whom love the film and were inspired by it.  Their comments are intercut with vintage clips of Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray.  Ms. Wray's participation is a bit of a bait-and-switch, though...she has exactly TWO lines in the entire commentary.  Still, Harryhausen, Ralston and Cooper are all a joy to listen to.  There is also a gallery of trailers for this and some of Mr. Cooper's other classic films.

Disc Two has two gigantic documentaries.  The first, "I'm King Kong", chronicles the life and career of Cooper, and contains many clips from his filmography, including a pair of his legendary silents.  The other is a 7 parter titled "RKO Production 601", and it goes into great detail about the movie, with retrospective thoughts by many of today's top directors, including Peter Jackson, John Landis and more.  It includes a visual treatment of Willis O'Brien's concept for Creation, and a bit of new stop motion animation created by Peter Jackson and company in an intricate attempt to re-create the famously lost "Spider Pit" sequence.

You can also watch their efforts separately from the documentary, as well as peruse original Creation test footage with commentary by Ray Harryhausen.  The menu screens are also quite cool. 

Summary:

King Kong has now been remade twice, with all three entries serving as a landmark into how far motion picture technology had progressed to its point.  But no matter how advanced the science becomes, I have a feeling fans will always flock to the original; a movie that continues to impress and thrill despite what has become obsolete and dated in terms of special effects.  What these artists accomplished was something that we just don't see any more in our day and age, and that makes it all the more special.  This DVD is what fans have been clamoring for...enjoy.

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