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King Kong (2005) (HD DVD)

Universal // PG-13 // November 14, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 18, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Chances are that you've caught Peter Jackson's sprawling $200 million remake of King Kong at least once, and the last thing you want to suffer through is another dweeby, self-important Internet reviewer rambling at length about a movie you've already seen. I'm kind of honor-bound to go forward with the whole rambling routine, but if you want to spare yourself a few whacks of the Page Down key, you can go ahead and skip straight to the technical notes.

Peter Jackson divides his glossy remake of King Kong into three distinct acts, each running around an hour in length. The film opens with an ironic smirk in New York as Al Jolson's bouncy "I'm Sitting On Top Of the World" plays in stark contrast to the gloomy desperation of the Great Depression. Jackson lavishes each of his characters with much more detailed backstories, although it still boils down to a desperately impoverished girl convinced by a smug film director into taking a lead role in his mysterious overseas shoot. Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow is a gifted but down on her luck comedienne, while Jack Black's update of Carl Denham is an underhanded, blustering filmmaker ready, willing, and able to exploit everyone in earshot if that's what it takes to get his vision on film. I appreciate strong characterization, but I don't feel like I was all that better acquainted with the characters in Jackson's version of King Kong than their much more economically introduced counterparts from the 1933 original. Even when they eventually do step foot on the S.S. Venture, the parade of bloated character development marches on with the wasted subplot of young shiprat Jimmy and his surrogate father, Mr. Hayes. Their clunky, faux-sentimental banter seems as if it had been yanked out of a rejected My Three Sons script, and there's no payoff to their subplot whatsoever. It's as if the editors got an unusually early copy of the DVD and started haphazardly reinserting deleted scenes back into the movie just to make sure it broke the three hour mark.

The uneven pacing eases as the crew of the Venture inadvertently stumbles upon Skull Island. The island's natives bear more of a resemblance to the Orcs of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy than the whooping dancers in Merian Cooper's film, and these feral remnants of a once-proud civilization are genuinely unsettling. Jackson bounces back and forth between horror and high-octane adventure, and from the moment the twenty-five foot Kong snatches Ann from her binds, the rest of the time spent on Skull Island is a dizzying rollercoaster ride. Many of the setpieces from the original film have clawed their way into the remake, only with Jackson preferring to triple the ante whenever possible. The brontosaurus chase becomes a frenzied stampede with the crew trying desperately to avoid getting caught underfoot while also fending off carnivorous beasties along the way. Kong dukes it out against three T-Rexes in this remake, tossing Ann from hand to hand (and sometimes to foot) in a battle that culminates in all of them getting ensnared in a tangle of vines high above the ground.

Many of these sequences suffer from some sort of glaring flaw: the poorly composited effects in the dino stampede look more like digital Colorforms than a $200 million blockbuster, and as thrilling as the T-Rex brawl is, it builds to such a calculatedly over-the-top crescendo that it's almost exhausting. Perhaps worst off is Jackson's version of the spider pit, a sequence excised from the 1933 original. The rescue party is assaulted by innumerable creepy crawlies and slimy sea creatures, but as initially disturbing and effective as it is, Jackson just doesn't have the restraint to stop while he's ahead. It drags on far too long, and by the time Jimmy whips out a machine gun and starts blasting bulky bugs off the back of bookish playwright Jack Driscoll, I was halfway tempted to leap into the line of fire myself. Jackson overuses last minute rescues by Captain Englehorn, a lazy plot device that's almost as grating as the generous dishing out of choppy slow-motion on the island.

As clumsy and unconvincing as quite a few of the effects are throughout the movie, it's clearly the result of so much attention being lavished on Kong himself. In all but a handful of unforgivingly tight shots, Kong is thoroughly convincing as a breathing, tactile creature, complete with thoughts and emotions. Much of that emotional weight can be traced to Andy Serkis, who provided the voice and movements for Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Kong also owes a great deal to Naomi Watts. There's never a glimmer of doubt that the mesmerizingly beautiful actress is interacting with a twenty-five foot gorilla, not gabbing with a couple of golf balls on a rod to keep her eyeline accurate. To ensure that the audience's sympathies are with Kong, he's neutered in the remake, rarely shown attacking anything that wasn't created on a bank of computers in Wellington. He doesn't stomp on any villagers, and when one of the seamen of the Venture winds up in his mouth, Kong yanks him out like an unwelcome piece of gristle.

The remainder of the movie is spent in wintery New York with a chained Kong in bright lights on Broadway. Jackson's cacklingly dark sense of humor comes out to play after Kong's escape, as the beast picks up every blonde he encounters on the street and casually tosses them aside with a dull, squishy thud following a moment later. One of the movie's most frequently criticized stretches is among my favorite; in the middle of all the chaos, Kong and Ann wind up on a frozen lake in Central Park. Their unbridled joy as Kong careens around the ice with the audience's knowledge of the horror that's soon to follow is both incredibly sweet and exceptionally tense. It packs the greatest emotional wallop of all of their scenes together, and that goodwill would be squandered as Kong mounts the Empire State Building. Jackson drags the climax out at least twice as long as he should've, unrelentingly repeating the same general formula of Longing Glance from Ann, Biplanes Zip by for Another Barrage, and Kong Almost Falls. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. By the time the assault reaches its inevitable conclusion, there's no emotional impact so much as a sigh of relief that Jackson finally got to the point.

Peter Jackson has produced a tremendous two hour remake of King Kong, but unfortunately, it's mired in an hour of ill-conceived excess. I was baffled when I first heard that an extended edition was in the works as the last thing Kong needs is to be longer. I can understand the need to flesh out the Lord of the Rings novels to epic-length films -- the books are each the size of a small sedan, after all -- but the 1933 incarnation of King Kong was a lean, brilliantly paced film. Lose the overture and you could watch the original twice in the time it takes to wade through Jackson's bloated, overindulgent remake. Honestly, I think that's exactly what I'd prefer to do.

Video: To no one's great surprise, King Kong boasts one of the most exceptional presentations on HD DVD to date. Its 2.39:1 visuals are remarkably crisp and clear, and from the bleak, ashen tones of Depression-era New York to Skull Island's lush, green hues, the film's palette is rendered flawlessly. There are a few scattered moments where the image takes on a diffused, ever-so-slightly soft appearance, particularly when Naomi Watts' mussed locks are in front of a composited background, but I've little doubt that this dates back to the original work in the digital domain. Film grain remains unintrusive throughout its three hour runtime, and no print flaws or noteworthy authoring hiccups are to be found. King Kong exhibits such a rich amount of fine detail that it can almost be too revealing, highlighting some of the shoddier effects work that a standard definition DVD would likely mask. That's a desperate grab for something to complain about; even at a casual glance, it's instantly apparent why Microsoft and Universal would choose this disc to pack in with the Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on. Of the more than sixty titles I've watched since the format's launch, King Kong easily ranks among the three most thoroughly impressive and showcases why these next-generation formats have attracted such a fiercely loyal following.

Audio: Gripes about Universal not including a lossless TrueHD track are unavoidable, but when I'm offered Dolby Digital Plus audio this outstanding, it quickly become irrelevant which codec I happen to select from a Setup menu. King Kong took home two Oscars for its sound work and deservedly so; this is an incomparably aggressive soundtrack, teeming with ambiance and colorful subtleties, sporting innumerable pans and some of the most robust imaging I've ever experienced, and summoning devastatingly low frequencies from the subwoofer. Despite the unending waves of sonic thunder, the film's dialogue never once felt overwhelmed, deftly balanced amidst all of the chaos. Lossy soundtrack or not, this is reference quality audio.

King Kong also offers dubs and subtitles in French and Spanish as well as a subtitle stream in English for the hard of hearing.

Supplements: This HD DVD release of King Kong not only lacks the hours upon hours of extras from the new extended DVD set, but Universal hasn't even bothered to port over the bonus material from the theatrical edition. Apparently the bloated $40 MSRP isn't quite enough to cover the costs of including a second disc.

This HD DVD of King Kong does make use of Universal's "U Control" system, although it's hardly a suitable substitute. If you're not familiar, a U Control menu bar will appear at certain points in the movie, listing icons for picture-in-picture video and/or 'art gallery' thumbnails. Select the icon you're interested in with your remote, mash the center button, and you can view conceptual art, interviews, making-of footage, and candid shots from the set. What makes U Control such a headache is that there really isn't that much material (if it amounts to much more than a third of the movie's three hour-plus runtime, I'd be surprised), there's so little advanced notice that the picture-in-picture footage will appear that I usually wound up missing the first few seconds of each clip, and when the current snippet of material has ended, the system forgets your selection. Even if you were watching some picture-in-picture footage a couple of minutes earlier, you'll have to select it again from the menu bar the next time it pops up. This means viewers have to keep a constant eye on the lower-right hand part of the screen -- and the icon bar spills over into the 2.39:1 letterboxing, for those select few with scope projection setups -- and the remote has to remain handy for the duration of the three hour movie. King Kong also doesn't let viewers adjust the volume of the picture-in-picture segments, and it can be a struggle to make out what's being said over the movie's soundtrack.

U Control is near-worthless as it's currently implemented, but it shouldn't be that tough to fix. Give viewers a menu screen where they can select the features they want in advance. Let them add or drop features as they watch the movie, but don't require them to click and click and click and click every few minutes. In cases like King Kong and The Break-Up where there are so few bells and whistles, maybe ditch the U Control system outright and just show everything, similar to what Warner has done with their In Movie Experiences. As it stands now, King Kong's implementation of U Control is not worth the hassle.

Conclusion: King Kong showcases some of the most outstanding video and audio that HD DVD has to offer, but the compromised extras don't come close to justifying its $39.99 sticker price, especially considering that a lavish special edition with an extended cut of the movie is such an inevitability. Rent It.
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