King Kong (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
It's tough in New York in the early-thirties as the Great Depression bites. Struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) has just watched the vaudeville show that she was starring in, as well as the theatre that was hosting it, close, whilst her agent suggests a bawdier role could be hers if she really wanted it. The work, after all, is always there, all you've got to do is stoop a little lower.
Meanwhile, across town, Carl Denham's financiers are previewing the footage from his latest safari trip and they're not happy, debating whether or not to sell it to Universal for stock footage in the vain hope of recouping their investment. Listening at the door, Denham (Jack Black) and Preston (Colin Hanks) steal the cans of film and reserve a boat for that night, travelling east to save his film. A chance meeting with Ann Darrow - on the street after she's caught stealing an apple - convinces him that he's found his latest leading lady and after persuading her with a mention of his screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), she joins him in a taxi ride to the docks where his boat awaits.
But Denham has more problems than having stolen his film footage and the late hiring of a new leading lady - Jack Driscoll hasn't been paid and is intending to quit the project, the ship's captain, Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), runs a superstitious crew who have to be told that they're sailing to Singapore and the police have issued a warrant for Denham's arrest. Juggling these crises, Denham has Englehorn cast his ship away before Driscoll can leave and before the police arrive. But tucked in his cabin is a rare map, one that he'll use to sail south of Singapore, to an uncharted piece of land known as Skull Island. As the ship turns south and Denham produces his map, Englehorn's crew talk in hushed tones about what awaits them but nothing, not even their worst fears, can prepare them for Kong...
On the pavement outside of Weta's Miramar workshop is a footprint made by a gorilla, or a cast of one, beside which is written Kong Wuz Hair. Not a recent addition to Weka Street, this dates from the time after the release of The Frighteners when Peter Jackson looked set to realise a boyhood dream, that of remaking King Kong, one that he'd had since watching it on television aged nine. It's hard to imagine the disappointment felt by Jackson when the deal with Universal to make a new version of King Kong, despite a huge amount of effort in pre-production with Weta, collapsed. As talk of Kong ended without agreement, Jackson was drawn to The Hobbit and then to The Lord of the Rings - the story should now be a familiar one - which, alongside the Star Wars prequels and the Harry Potter films, became one of the biggest franchise successes of recent years.
Little wonder, then, that King Kong was brought back to the table soon after, with Jackson, now one of the industry's most bankable directors, given fairly free reign with an iconic star of the movies. Unlike the Dino de Laurentiis remake, which, in the leap between the 1933 version and this, seems to have been written out of history, the Empire State Building would remain, as would the setting in the 1930s but in many other respects, one can't help but wonder how a pre-Lord of the Rings Kong would have differed from this one. It's arguable that Jackson would have had less of an epic in mind, that the less-experienced Weta may have forced Jackson's hand to make it less driven by effects and that he may have been forced to look outside of New Zealand but now, little of this matters. King Kong is exactly the kind of film that Jackson ought to have followed Lord of the Rings with - as grand a vision as Weta can afford him, further proof that he can bring big audiences into films that stroll nonchalantly passed the three-hour mark and, in remaking a classic film, one that secures his place as a great director.
What's particularly impressive about Jackson's Kong is how few liberties he's taken with the story. The de Laurentiis remake, Jackson's revisiting and even an animated version of the story, Mighty Kong, all stick to Carl Denham leading a band of filmmakers out of New York and into an uncharted area of the Pacific Ocean, following rumours and a roughly-drawn map until their ship, the Venture, hits a fog bank. The crew of Jackson's ship have all stepped from seabound melodramas of the thirties and forties - ship's food is porridge and lots of it, everyone smokes and no sailor trusts the likes of Denham, who comes aboard with his talk of Skull Island - and whilst there's a thuddingly awful mention of Heart Of Darkness, Jackson overplays it such that it's never taken particularly seriously. "It's not an adventure?" Jamie Bell's Jimmy asks of Conrad's novel. No it isn't and nor is it an entirely accurate metaphor for what awaits him and the rest of the crew of the Venture on Skull Island but Jackson's anything-goes philosophy is one that has admirably remained with him from the pre-Heavenly Creatures days of Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles and Braindead. There may not be much justification for including Conrad's story of the murky amorality of Marlowe and Kurtz but if the star of your film is a twenty-five-foot gorilla, why not?
This spirit remains even when Jackson could have acknowledged this being a more enlightened time and, therefore, played down the dark-skinned savages, he doesn't, keeping his Kong as an old-fashioned adventure movie, where natives armed with spears and blowpipes chased the white-skinned explorers through giants pots of burning oil and bodies skewered on poles, all the while shaking charms made from various animal parts at them. Even the giant wall remains, an emblem of what separates the small enclave of humanity from the prehistoric creatures that populate Skull Island and Jackson, like the very best directors of action, pushes his story on until those massive gates swing open and Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow edges her way out onto a small platform, where she, as well as the audience await the arrival of Kong. A rustling of the trees and a distant roar - not to mention the natives working themselves into something of a lather - are our first cues for his arrival but once he's been and gone and the sailors decide to go get her back, we're placed firmly in the sticky jungles of Skull Island but also safely back in the comforting arms of high adventure, daring deeds and such an utter lack of logic that it all becomes enormously thrilling. Indeed, Kong's saving of Ann Darrow from the Tyrannosaurus-sized dinosaurs is as worthy of a cheer as the appearance of Stuart Devenie's arse-kicking Father McGruder from Braindead. It's that exciting a scene.
As Kong battles three giant dinosaurs, complete with Jackson's version of the famous jaw-break, the crew of the Venture meet their ends in a variety of ways and even Naomi Watts gets a turn with her vaudeville act, entertaining the giant gorilla with juggling and a touch of slapstick, Jackson clambers atop his own Empire State of CG effects, miniatures, gore and sticky gloop and brings them all to the screen. Playing up on the terrors within Skull Island, there's a great deal of PG-rated horror as Jackson brings centipedes, spiders and flesh-eating slugs, all giant-sized, to the screen, creeping over skin, probing Naomi Watts' mouth and even gulping down Andy Serkis' Lumpy. But just when it looks as though Jackson's past may be catching up with him, he remembers that Kong was as much a love story as an adventure yarn and sits his stars down on a cliff face to gaze out to a sunset over the Pacific. In between the frenetic action, these moments - this one is followed by Kong and Ann Darrow ice skating in Central Park before a final moment together on top of the Empire State Building mirrors that of Skull Island - are most welcome, if only to break up sections of the movie that would otherwise be no more than extended chase sequences.
It's this breakneck pace that may well be, for many, the film's undoing. Well, that and the length of the film, which at a shade over three hours, may be evidence of a post-Lord of the Rings Jackson being locked into epic productions. Taken together, you'll doubtless have many who think that three hours in the company of one of Jackson's films is an effortless way to spend the time. However, there will be just as many who, as yet more creepy-crawlies scuttle out of the Skull Island jungle, will bemoan the passing of the intermission. King Kong is, then, not an unqualified success and, although they too had their detractors, it's not as good a film as his Lord of the Rings. This, though, has more of a playful spirit and so long as the film retains that sense of Jackson having fun, King Kong is entertainment of a very old school.
But his best film remains one that's increasingly far back in his career - the magnificent Heavenly Creatures is now five very long films ago - and having now seen his dream come true, it may be time for Peter Jackson to turn his hand at a smaller, more emotional piece. With Braindead, he took horror comedy to its very limits, something he may well have done with epic adventures over his last four films. With his next film an adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, slated for release in 2007, Jackson looks to have realised this. Although, like Heavenly Creatures, he'll likely still find space for the Weta effects house, he's already proved that he can tie their work to an emotionally powerful story, leaving no reason to suspect why he shouldn't do so again.
A three-hour film on a single dual-layer disc leaves little room for a DTS track but what we have is more than adequate. King Kong comes with an excellent transfer of both the video and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. There's an impressive amount of detail in the image with each of the three major settings - New York, the Venture and Skull Island - being sympathetically treated. Skull Island, for example, is suitably dark and foreboding at the beginning, brightening when in the jungle, where the plain greys of the shore are replaced by rich greens and deep blacks. The DVD handles all of this without troubling itself and although there's a touch of noise in the picture in the more frenetic scenes, it's not excessive. However, watch this on a big enough screen and the problems in the effects shots are obvious, particularly so when CG and live-action elements have been composited together.
As for the Dolby Digital audio track, it's a good one - suitably loud, making good use of the rear channels and remaining clear throughout. At its best, much of the audio effects go completely unnoticed - as with the ambient noises on the Venture, where the wood creaks and the water washes against the hull - but it's also capable of standing out, as it does so with the biplanes attacking Kong in the film's finale. Finally, there are English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Introduction By Peter Jackson (3m32s): A much slimmer Peter Jackson - looking a long way from Bad Taste's Derek - appears here to introduce the special features disc of King Kong. He's straightforward about the disc and steers clear of the actual film, so this is largely unnecessary, but his presence, as with the Lord of the Rings discs, suggests his continuing interest in the film through its DVD release.
Post-Production Diaries (152m30s): Opening with Peter Jackson lying on a couch in the editorial suite thirty-three weeks before the opening of the film, he introduces the Post Production Diaries that will count down week-by-week through the thirty-three weeks before the 14 December release of King Kong. If you've notice a motif of 33 on this disc, it's Peter Jackson paying tribute to the original King Kong, which was released in 1933, but almost all mentions of the older film end there as these follow up the DVD release of the Production Diaries with what happened once principal photography had finished.
First released through the kongisking.net website, these thirty-three Post Production Diaries offer a fairly comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at the final stages in the making of the film, which includes such departments as Sound Editing/Scoring, Weta Digital, Weta Workshop, Editorial, Miniatures and Motion Capture. Along the way there are such milestones as the release of the trailer with twenty-four weeks to go, the delivery of the film to the studio on 27 November and, with a week to go, the press junket and premiere of the film in New York on King Kong Day, which mayor Michael Bloomberg has declared 5 December 2005. Other highlights are the pick-up shots with the, as they bill themselves, glorified feature extras or the Venture crewmen, Colin Hanks and Jack Black looking thoroughly bored during ADR and Bob Burns showing up at Weta with the original Kong made by Willis O'Brien. Finally, a nice touch from Peter Jackson are the occasional diaries in which he answers questions from fans, which, though they may be few, are given due credit from the director.
Skull Island - A Natural History (17m02s): Playing as a spoof documentary, which features a mocked-up photograph of Peter Jackson and various actors and Weta personnel as explorers, this attempts to put some factual context into the story of Skull Island, even to borrowing the discovery of the coelacanth as proof of the existence of prehistoric creatures. Why they didn't drag in poor old Nessie is quite beyond me but this is a mildly entertaining feature to bring some humour into what could have been very dull.
The dour voice of reality is provided by the Creature Designers at Weta Workshop, who spoil things somewhat by talking about their creation of the various dinosaurs and giant insects of Skull Island. Frankly, though, there was no need for that.
Kong's New York, 1933 (28m26s): Taking in vaudeville, the Great Depression, Hooverville and a million-and-a-half unemployed, New York wasn't in the best of health in 1933 and this feature shows how Peter Jackson and his crew brought the city to life through CG, miniatures and live-action. Whilst there's a good deal of bearded folk sitting by computer monitors, this feature does describe the history of New York harbour as well as giving over its last ten minutes to that of the Empire State Building, including its addition of a landing tower for the transport of the future...the airship!
Not a bad DVD release at all but the lack of a commentary or two and a DTS track do suggest that there will be a further release of King Kong some time in the future, similar to the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films. Unfortunately, there's no mention of this yet, which is unlike Jackson, so it may be that Universal are waiting on the reaction to this release and interest from fans before putting any investment towards a three- or a four-disc set. Or it may be that an announcement will follow some weeks after this has had a chance to prove itself in the market, thus giving fans the extended release whilst not affecting sales of this two-disc version. Either way, were I a betting man, I'd say that another version is coming, most likely a year on from the theatrical release.
Otherwise, though, this is a fine film, one that sparkles with what can be dragged out of CG these days whilst looking back to a more innocent time, when a character could close a film with, "It was beauty killed the beast" and not feel remotely silly. Granted, there remains an uncomfortable sense of parody about some of it - that final line would actually have been better had it not been delivered by Jack Black, who I can imagine mentally smirking at it - but the cast do generally give in to the sense of the ridiculous whilst also playing it straight. That odd juxtaposition of King Kong being big adventure movie as well as a postmodern play on the 1933 version leaves it as a great movie experience but not one that's as satisfying as Cooper and Schoedsack's original. The length of this may also be a factor but this is still hugely entertaining throughout and would make for a good DVD release were it not for the lack of confirmation on a later, and fuller, release.