It's not often that mainstream films are remade with the same skill and passion as the originals; usually, we're left with half-baked "updates" that play more like third-generation photocopies. Only on rare occasions are we graced by the likes of John Carpenter's The Thing or David Cronenberg's The Fly, often settling for bottom-feeders like Get Carter, The Haunting and The Time Machine. Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005) is on the brighter end of the spectrum, maintaining just about everything that made the 1933 original so memorable while applying its own distinct stamp in the process. Though there's not much that hasn't already been said about either incarnation, the fact that both co-exist peacefully offers proof that this was a project worth doing again. Well, technically a third time, but the 1976 version doesn't cut it.
Over 70 years have passed since the original Kong changed everything. The gigantic gorilla went on to inspire a number of live action sequels and Toho crossovers, several lesser-known animated efforts and even one of Nintendo's most beloved mascots---that's 'Donkey Kong', for the cave-dwellers (incidentally, MCA/Universal sued Nintendo for copyright infringement in 1986 [detail] over the character's name, only to pay out $1.8M when they realized that Kong was in the public domain). Getting back to business, it comes down to this: King Kong was practically a household name long before Jackson picked up a camera, but the director wanted to bring him back into the spotlight nonetheless. Rather than a straightforward "tribute", though, the creative team added new elements to the story…not to mention new luster to the visual presentation, courtesy of WETA Digital. Clocking in at a mammoth 187 minutes---nearly double that of the original---the newer Kong manages to stay afloat during the entire show.
Here's just one reason this 2005 remake works so well: it's not just what we see, but when we see it. Jackson wisely keeps the general outline of the original, providing a stylized 1930s-era backdrop and letting the pace burn slow and steady. We're slowly integrated into this new but familiar world, but it's not until Skull Island that things really heat up. Plenty of fantastic creatures are revealed as the crew treks on---but this is Kong's movie, and it's not until the big fella shows up that we really see what we came for. The special effects are second to none, of course, creating a detailed and believable word that's easy to get lost in; in every sense, they're executed with the same precision and skill as the original. Even so, it's the way they're utilized so seamlessly that creates such a fine illusion.
New to this version, among other elements, is Kong's "romance" with Ann Darrow, which works well in context. The original gives us a more potent damsel in distress, but it's an element that could have severely hurt the film if handled wrongly. Watts does a serviceable job filling the shoes as Darrow, while Jack Black's twisted, ego-driven sense of showmanship (as Carl Denham) helps to anchor the third act. Smaller roles are filled admirably by the likes of Colin Hanks and Kyle Chandler, with nary a weak link to be found in the bunch. An A-list cast may have looked good on paper---and sold more tickets, of course---but it's hard to be disappointed by the faces onscreen. Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings) returns for motion capture duty as Kong himself, and it's performances like this that really capture the heart of Jackson's revised vision: a convincing blend of live action and special effects, merged together to create a highly entertaining film. Sounds a bit like the 1933 original more than ever, doesn't it?
While said original was blessed with one of the best classic DVD treatments of 2005, Jackson's remake also comes strongly out of the gate this year. While film-only collectors may settle for the barebones version, true DVD freaks should opt for this 2-disc Special Edition---and, surprise surprise, this Universal release isn't a defective DVD-18…and it's even readily available at major retail outlets! Featuring a stunning technical presentation and a healthy dose of bonus features, many of which are meatier than you'd expect, this Special Edition is a perfect partner for a film this size. Though an Extended Edition has been all but confirmed for later in 2006, fans of King Kong will be pleased to know that this package stands on its own two feet just fine. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 2:35 widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, it's no surprise that King Kong looks excellent from start to finish. The stylized color palette and set design create a very pleasing visual presentation, while no digital problems (edge enhancement, etc.) are present to drag everything down. With the next generation of DVDs already upon us, it's great to know that "standard definition" can still look this good.
King Kong's audio presentation is equally impressive, boasting a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that preserves the theatrical experience for smaller home setups. The forthcoming Extended Edition will likely up the ante with a DTS track, but this meaty mix is certainly up to par. Strong dynamic range ensures that the dialogue is clear, though it never fights for attention with the strong ambience and LFE. English captions are provided for both the film and extras, while French and Spanish subtitles are offered for the film only.
Highlights include motion capture with Andy Serkis (below left) and the digital grading demonstrations---both highly reminiscent of the ones found on the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions---as well as footage of the American and Australian film premieres. As a bonus, these 30-odd featurettes are organized in two separate ways: by department (music, editing, etc.) or in chronological order. Additionally, the diaries---as well as every other bonus feature in this package---are presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen. It's details like this that really get points in my book.
Also located on the second disc are a pair of documentaries, including "Skull Island: A Natural History" (16 minutes), a tongue-in-cheek look at Kong's mythical stomping grounds and the creatures therein. It's great to see the crew's enthusiasm for the world they've re-imagined, though younger audiences may walk away thinking Skull Island is as real as Santa Claus. Even more interesting is "Kong's New York" (28 minutes, above right), a historical look at NYC of the 1930s; covering everything from The Great Depression and Prohibition to the construction of the Empire State Building, it's a great period piece that complements the main feature well. Rewinding a bit, the first disc's lone film-related extra is behind-the-scenes footage from a Volkswagen tie-in commercial (3 minutes).
Pound for pound, this isn't a bad mix of bonus features by any stretch. Only an audio commentary or two (and the trailer, of course) could have made this 2-disc Special Edition a truly complete release, though it's quite a package when paired with the original Production Diaries. Either way, there's plenty to enjoy this time around, and certainly more than enough for casual fans of the film.
Though most fans have made their choices by now, this 2-disc Special Edition is a clear winner over the barebones release. With a nice mix of extras to complement the great technical presentation, this well-rounded package pays fitting tribute to Peter Jackson's latest opus. Only the most dedicated fans will be able to hold off until the Extended Edition sees the light of day, but this well-rounded release is anything but an appetizer: it's a fantastic DVD package in its own right. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office