King Kong (2005): Deluxe Extended Edition Review
This review contains a reprint of my review of the two-disc Region 1 release from April of earlier this year, which is followed by a short comment on the thirteen minutes or so that has been added to this edition. If you wish to jump directly to that section, which is followed by a description of this transfer and the new bonus features, which are identical to the Region 2 release, then please click here to go to those sections.
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 original film, 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.
Whilst not quite as begrudging as was Ridley Scott on the extended edition of Gladiator, Peter Jackson certainly doesn't claim that this longer version of King Kong is his preferred cut. Instead, and with only thirteen minutes or so added to what was already a very long film, it remains fundamentally the same film with only a short scene added here and there. Indeed, everything that has been added feels somewhat superfluous with Jackson including all of the most memorable footage in his original cut. Contrary to what his extended/alternative cuts did for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy or The Frighteners, King Kong never gets close to being a substantially different film. What has been added, such as a raft sequence and a new dinosaur attack make this film a slightly more exciting one but not noticeably so, particularly when the sight of Kong battling the T-Rexs is much more thrilling than any of the new additions. However, it is worth saying that if the three hours of the theatrical cut didn't trouble you, neither will this but for anyone else, it might prove to be a film too long.
With those extra minutes now included in the extended cut, what was a single dual-layer disc in the old set now becomes a pair of the same with the film drawing to an intermission shortly after the Venture arrives on Skull Island. With that bit more space, the presentation of the extended cut looks slightly better than the theatrical cut but with that comes the problem of the special effects now looking that little less special. Matte lines are now that bit more obvious as are the many CG creatures - less so Kong than the brontosauruses - but with the print used for the transfer being in outstanding condition, they are the only noticeable problems with the state of the original film. However, the actual DVD is good with there continuing to be an impressive amount of detail in the image with the scenes set on Skull Island looking better than those in New York and on the Venture. 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.
The Dolby Digital track - I was disappointed to note that a DTS track has not been included on this release - is suitably loud and makes not only good use of all six channels but does so by remaining clear throughout. So good is it that even in its best moments, they're hardly noticeable with one simply getting used to the overall quality of the soundtrack. However, that part of the film set on the Venture remains the highlight, particularly with the sound of the wood creaking and of the water washing against the hull although the biplanes attacking Kong does come close. Finally, there are English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Commentary: So how did they get Kong on the boat? Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson answer that question (sort of) and many others in this feature-length commentary that takes in Jackson's love of the film, his attempt to get a remake going in the mid-nineties and his eventual making and releasing of this film in 2005. There is some discussion of the technicalities of the production but much more on the comparison between this film and the 1933 original, some talk of the 1976 remake and lots on the challenge there was in the making of this film. However, for its length, it is a sketchy commentary, being more of a chat between Jackson and Boyens, such that those interested in the detail of the effects, for example, might be disappointed. As for how they get Kong on to the boat, never mind off the boat, across New York and into a theatre, it's dealt with at the very end as Boyens pops the question to Jackson.
Deleted Scenes (46m23s): Peter Jackson introduces this entire set of scenes, revealing why they, even on this Extended Cut of King Kong, still fail to make his edit. It would appear, and his introductions generally back this up, that Jackson decided early on what scenes would be included and what would not, with those featured here showing either no effects shots or rather simple, unfinished ones. Taking the director at his word, his basic reason for not including these deleted scenes was to get an already long film moving a little faster, removing much of the action that's set aboard the boat and getting the cast to Skull Island with as little delay as his three-hour film would allow. Hence, many of these are set aboard the boat, not only on its voyage across the Pacific but on its final approach to Skull Island. Jackson still finds time for a couple of scenes set back in New York at the end.
The Eighth Blunder of the World (18m52s): It's fitting that on a film that is, by some margin, much, much longer than the average movie, that King Kong's showing of goofs, outtakes and other on-set nonsense is also much longer than the average blooper reel. Otherwise, it's much the same as a typical set of the same with the exception being those in which WETA had a hand, such as Jack Black offing various creatures with a dual-ended lightsaber, some enormous bronto-droppings, Kong pushing the boat through the ocean and Peter Jackson and composer James Newton Howard apparently listening intently to Jack Black's ideas for a feelgood hit of the summer and dance routine to be included in King Kong.
The Missing Production Diary (8m17s): With there being as many Production Diaries as there were, it's no surprise that the actors let off steam on occasion with this being a funny account of their suffering of, in Andy Serkis' words, "a syndrome known as Monitor Watching Syndrome." Fights break out, Jack Black cannot tear himself away from the monitors and Adrian Brody admits that he only did it with the others at the start but soon started watching playback on his own. Andy Serkis describes it as wanking off but Black counters that if he didn't do it that he'd suffer from blue balls! It's a cautionary tale...
A Night In Vaudeville (12m06s): In their commentary for this set, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh discuss their disappointment at not including more vaudeville material in the montage that opens the film With this feature, they now have the opportunity to redress that by including material of the second unit auditioning vaudeville acts and then shooting them for inclusion in the film. The are, almost without exception, awful, leaving one understanding how easy it was for the BBC to banish The Good Old Days from its television schedules.
King Kong Homage (9m57s): Of course Jackson's King Kong owes much to the 1933 original but this feature explains exactly where the director has paid direct homage to the older film by drawing out lines, references to its making and props. Peter Jackson appears throughout this short feature explaining his homage and uses footage from the 1933 film as reference points.
Scripts: Included as DVD-ROM extras, which can be read either through an inbuilt script viewer on the DVD or via Adobe Acrobat (and printed off thereafter), this set includes both Fran Walsh and Jackson's 1997 script for his unrealised King Kong and Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and his 2005 script for the version that was released theatrically that same year. Having not actually read the scripts - I am, of course, devoted to this site but not that devoted - I can't say what actually changed between them but one suspects that it was less to do with what was on these pages that convinced Universal to go with Jackson than his success with The Lord Of The Rings.
Pre-Viz Animatics: There are four such computer-generated planning shots included here, Arrival At Skull Island (4m20s), Bronto Stampede (6m34s), T-Rex Fight (9m52s) and Empire State Building (9m28s), which have been completed with ambient sound effects but which are available with or without background music. To think that a couple of decades ago we'd have marvelled at these animatics on their own, they are, however, useful to see how Jackson planned his film and how much like the finished version these are. In particular, the first of these is very good even with the blocky CG effects as the tension from the final cut of the film is there throughout. To go some way to proving this, there is also the option to compare the Empire State Building animatic to the completed film, with the two versions playing one above the other. Other than some small changes and an obvious improvement in the look of the latter, they are very close.
The Present (9m26s): Assuming that it was quite a lengthy shoot, the cast made a film secretly during the main production to present to Peter Jackson on his birthday. Beginning with an introduction by Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis, it's a short tale of a present that passes through the hands of various owners, all of whom are desperate to get whatever Naomi Watts has wrapped up inside it. Much funnier than the main feature and played with a nod and a wink, it will be welcome to anyone who enjoyed the little hobbit-made The Long And the Short Of It on the two-disc Two Towers set.
Weta Collectibles (5m17s): Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor invite us into the workshop at Weta to look at how the modellers went from creating artwork for the film to models that you and I could pick up in specialist shops. Actually, there's no 'I' at all as, frankly, I tend to look upon these things as I would a trip into Games Workshop but there is clearly some interest in these things.
Finally, there are three Trailers included in this set, the original Teaser (2m33s), a Theatrical Trailer (2m57s) and a Cinemedia Trailer (2m42s).
Peter Jackson Introduction (2m32s): Something that is very welcome given the amount of bonus material on the set, Peter Jackson talks about the amount of bonus content on these three discs, breaking down what is on these three discs and what it covers.
The Origins of King Kong (16m37s): Of course, it would be slightly insulting to explain the origins of Kong in such a way as to assume that the audience for this film have no knowledge of the '33 version. Jackson and his team avoid taking that tack, using footage of the original film but doing so to illustrate their love of the film and their interest in doing a remake of Kong having been approached during production on The Frighteners. From that point on, it's a rapid telling of the story up until the point at which Universal, then fretting about the release of Godzilla, scrap the project. With Weta quickly diverted onto artwork for The Lord Of The Rings - they suspected something was up at that point - the rest is film history.
Pre-Production, Part 1 (42m17s): Beginning with Peter Jackson describing how his every visit to the Weta Workshop saw him walking past the room in which all of the Kong material was stored, this feature is the journey from that frustration through The Lord Of The Rings and on to Kong getting the green light once again. With contributions from the principal cast and crew, this covers all of the pre-production up until the point at which the cast arrived on what there was of a set, with Weta providing thousands of storyboards and models, the film being produced in animatic form, which actually had its own premiere, and Jackson holding it all together until his version of King Kong was ready to move into shooting.
Pre-Production, Part 2 (15m45s): With the cast arriving on set, this feature covers the next period in the pre-production cycle, which takes Weta's artwork and the animatics and begins developing them into sets, models and plans for computer effects. Alongside that and with the cast getting together on a regular basis, there's much messing about behind the scenes as they practice shooting tommy guns, read through the script, dance about the set of the Venture and, in one particularly grim moment, give the audience a glimpse of Jack Black's builder's bum.
The Venture Journey (22m03s): Contrary to what most people thought of that section of the film, I really enjoyed the time spent on the Venture, liking how it built up the tension in the film until the cliffs of Skull Island came out of the fog. Understandably, given the amount of time it's in the film, the Venture, or rather the ship that was used to base it on, has its own feature in which the filmmakers discuss what was required to turn a 1950s ship into one of a much older vintage and how a model of it was then taken into the soundstages for shooting that would have been impossible on the water.
Return to Skull Island (30m03s): With the Venture dealt with, it's on to the next major set in the film, that of Skull Island, which mixes live-action with miniatures and digital effects to create a look that is quite breathtaking at times. What's particularly impressive is how much effort went into the look of Skull Island even when no one's eyes will be on the background, such as Kong's fight with the T-Rexs. However, with little regard to this, the various Weta people and Peter Jackson talk about their work on this part of the film and how it deserves to be the central part of this feature film.
New York, New Zealand (25m53s): With Kong in the hold, the film heads back to New York. Except that it's not New York at all but a somewhat idealised version of it constructed by Jackson's crew in New Zealand, where, copping the idea from Lucasfilm, he has his sets built to a height three times that of the actors and uses CG to fill in the blanks. With his people explaining how they did this in no small amount of detail, Jackson guides the viewer through the building of his city and how, out of a building in New Zealand, he created a wonderful-looking city, complete with an ice rink on which Kong could skate.
Bringing Kong to Life, Part 1 (48mins): With the sets having been dealt with, it's on to the character of Kong with the efforts of Andy Serkis being the centrepiece of this feature. As Jackson describes it, it was essential that they got Kong exactly right and the visual effects people who worked on it back up that opinion, saying that failure was not an option and nor was only getting the character sixty- or seventy-five-percent right. Working with the character of Kong from the 1933 film and with much study of real apes, the animatics planned the film and left it such that Andy Serkis could bring his own thoughts on the character onto the screen.
Bringing Kong to Life, Part 2 (26m29s): Having done much work in the motion-capture studio, this second part of the documentary goes onto the sets where Andy Serkis is dressed in a gorilla suit, has a bunch of bananas in his lunch bag and plays Kong off the rest of the cast. After that, it's on to a marathon 3-day ADR session, then back to the motion capture studios and then out of the way to allow the digital effects crew to finish the character.
Conceptual Design Video Galleries (41m20s): Featuring five reels of concept art for the film, broken into 1996 King Kong, The Venture, Skull Island, New York and Kong, these include artwork, models and blueprints, all included to inform the viewer of the effort that went into designing King Kong.
Finally, there is a set of DVD Credits (5m11s), over which plays a song by Jack Black that features such lyrics as, "Kong! There is nothing on Earth that is nearly as strong...as Kong! Kong! In the jungle he lives and is where he belongs...King Kong!" Marvellous...
Back when I reviewed the two-disc release of King Kong, I noted that, "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." Well, there's still no DTS track but the commentary is there but this doesn't feel quite as complete a set as any one of three Lord Of The Rings extended editions. However, the big DVD box would seem to be part and parcel of the Peter Jackson route to home entertainment - to date, there's been three- and four-disc editions of all three Lord Of The Rings films, The Frighteners and this - but this feels like its covering ground for the sake of it at times, not so much because it's necessary but because it's what Jackson does. I can well imagine this being devoured by fans but regardless of the months preparing it, never mind the years spent on the film, it does feel as though it's here largely for the sake of it. A better first release would have been much more appreciated.