Director Peter Jackson’s mostly entertaining and occasionally dazzling follow-up to “Lord of the Rings” is this epic remake of “King Kong”, a massive production captured for online fans (see the “King Kong: Production Diaries”) DVD Set, which offers all of the featurettes broadcast online) by Jackson’s crew. The picture opens with jobless actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) seeking work and coming up short everywhere she searches. Meanwhile, Carl Denham (a wonderful Jack Black) is on the run from financiers) and his latest idea is to run off with screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and a last-minute crew in order to try and make a film on an long-lost island. The only issue – he doesn’t have a leading lady…yet.
He literally runs into Darrow and soon enough, the group is packed aboard a freighter setting sail for Skull Island. While on-board, the picture gets the set-up out of the way, as Darrow meets her co-star, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), yet ends up falling for screenwriter Driscoll (oddly, the latter occurs within the span of a scene.) The picture does take too long to get going (Skull Island doesn’t come into the picture until nearly an hour in) and while the performances are great and the visual effects are first-rate, this doesn’t change the fact that one can feel bits and pieces from the opening hour that could have pretty easily landed on the editing room floor. Build-up is great and I’m not saying that Jackson should have revealed Kong in the opening moments, but this is just a little too much – 15-20 minutes dropped from the opening 75 could have helped out the pace of the film’s opening third quite nicely. The entire movie could have lost a good 45 minutes in all. A couple of hours and change would have been fine – 188 minutes is just too bloated for this tale.
Once the movie finally drops anchor on Skull Island, it does begin to gain steam as the group runs smack into tribesfolk who kidnap Ann and plan to use her as a sacrifice. When Kong comes along, he decides that Ann is more friend than midnight snack and takes her back to his side of the island. When a series of dinos and other giant creatures come calling, it’s Kong who saves the girl in an exciting sequence that offers state-of-the-art visual effects. While most of these scenes work, a few don’t (see a ridiculous sequence where giant insects attack the Brody character and another character has the not-so-bright idea to try and literally shoot them off as they climb on the Brody character, who continues to move.) Once the picture starts throwing dino attacks into the mix in the second half of the Skull Island hour, it essentially never lets up as the film makes its way towards the last third, where Kong is taken back to Manhattan and breaks out, going on a rampage to find Ann.
Impressively, Jackson’s is able to nicely portray the connection between beauty and beast. It’s thanks not only to very good visual effects that boast strong detail, but a marvelous performance by Andy Serkis, whose motions were captured for Kong (Serkis also did Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”). If the audience doesn’t feel sympathy for Kong, the movie loses heart and doesn’t connect as strongly. Thankfully, the expressive creature turned out to be a fantastic creation by Serkis and the FX team, especially in the emotional final moments.
Thankfully, the film’s prime FX work doesn’t provide the best performance in the picture. Naomi Watts offers a great performance as Ann, as she offers a lovely mix of sweetness, spunk, strength and vulnerability. Jack Black is the other highlight as the crafty con of a filmmaker. As much as I’ve liked Black’s performances in the past, I wasn’t sure if he’d be a right fit in the film. While his performance tones down his usual persona and remains largely serious, he still manages to create an engaging, crafty and quite watchable villain. The only performance that I didn’t find compelling was Adrien Brody’s, and that’s largely because Driscoll never becomes an entirely well-developed character.
Overall, “Kong” is not a film without some flaws – a few scenes become a bit too ridiculous (even for a film like this) and Jackson could have made this a more straightforward, swift picture with some cutting, especially in the opening half. Still, despite some concerns – and I didn’t think the picture was without a few – “Kong” remains an entertaining popcorn flick with solid performances, strong effects and some moments that are quite moving.
This extended cut of “Kong” adds another 13 minutes worth of footage to the picture. The scene selection menus on both film discs do note which scenes are new and which offer extended footage. New scenes include a narrow escape from a giant sea creature and some other little swamp inhabitants, a brief encounter with a bizarre bird and an attack from a Triceratops. Examples of scenes with additional footage are: the insect pit scene and Kong’s escape/race through the streets of NYC. 230 new effects shots are, according to the cover, included in the new footage.
Overall, the few instances of new/extended scenes provide some fun footage. As for the two big additions: while it’s rather brief, the Triceratops attack is tense and although it goes on a couple of beats too long, the attack in the swamp has its moments.
VIDEO: “Kong” is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The 188-minute feature gets a little more room to breathe this time around, as the picture is spread across two DVDs instead of one dual-layer disc. Sharpness and detail are impressive enough for one to admire all the details apparent in every frame.
The presentation’s only real concern visually is the presence of some very slight edge enhancement on a couple of occasions. Otherwise, everything looked crisp and clean, with no print flaws and no pixelation or other concerns. Colors looked bold and beautiful, with perfect saturation and no smearing. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. The presentation looked excellent once again here.
SOUND: The film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is – as one might expect – a powerhouse, offering thunderous effects and aggressive surround use. Although the action sequences of the last half of the picture are certainly the most head-spinning, the surrounds are used nicely in the first half for ambience and the occasional effect. Sound effects are dynamic and bold, sounding crisp and well-recorded. The enjoyable, emotional score from James Newton Howard is also presented here with satisfying fidelity. Dialogue seemed clean and clear, with no distortion or other faults. Powerful, deep bass can be felt at times throughout, as well. DTS has not been included here.
EXTRAS: It should be noted that none of the extras from the prior releases (the regular release and the “King Kong: Production Diaries” release) have been carried over here, so fans who own those releases can hang onto them.
Although the commentary from Jackson and writer/co-producer Phillipa Boyens is a terrific extra that provides a superb amount of insight into the film, it has some serious competition in the multi-part documentary on the third and final disc, which runs a little over 180 minutes. “Recreating the Eighth Wonder” takes a look at every aspect of the production from start-to-finish, beginning with an opening stretch that details Jackson’s love of the original “Kong” and his attempts to try and get the film started. Although Jackson tried to get the film going in the ’90’s, it wasn’t until the director was working on “Return of the King” that the project was jumpstarted again, with the production crew finding that they had little time to produce an incredibly complex film. A particularly fun moment during this preproduction footage is when Watts, Jackson and other members of the production crew venture up to the top of the Empire State Building, then head where few go: to the absolute top, where transmitters on the building essentially take over Jackson’s video camera. We also hear more about Watts and Jackson meeting with actress Fay Wray.
From there we head further into pre-production (conceptual design, pre-vis, models, planning, rehearsal) and eventually, into the production of the film. We watch as, while “Kong” appears severely challenging in terms of scope, it generally appears in this documentary to go smoothly aside from a few moments, such as one instance where actor Andy Serkis gets washed overboard.
After that, we get further discussion of creating the Skull Island and New York sequences, with very detailed looks at the creation of the visual effects within the larger look at the development and production of these segments of the film. The visual effects of the New York sequences are dazzling to watch in the final film, but almost more fascinating is watching the visual effects tools build every last detail of ’30’s New York City, populate it with virtual citizens and putting Kong into the mix.
The final two sections of the picture take a look at creating Kong. Given that Kong is essentially the centerpiece of the picture, Jackson and his effects artists were faced with a huge task in trying to get Kong exactly right. The section opens with a look at the development of the design of Kong and some of the various concepts that were considered over the years. We then hear from Andy Serkis, the actor who acted out the actions of the virtual Kong. We hear about (and see – the actor chose to – unknown to the rest of the crew, at the time – pay for his own trip to Rwanda to study apes up close) the actor’s research with real gorillas. The actor’s footage from his research also ended up helping the rest of the crew, as well. Finally, we watch footage of Serkis acting out the part on set and in a motion-capture suit.
Concept art video galleries are also found on the third disc. These filmed concept art stills show different aspects of the production and include concept art from the original 1996 production that did not get off the ground. The second disc also includes four pre-vis galleries (“Arrival at Skull Island”, “Bronto Stampede”, “T-Rex Fight” and “Empire State Building Battle”.) The concept art galleries play with film score behind them, while that is optional on the pre-vis sequences.
Also found on the second disc are: “The Present” (a short film at the cast made as a gift to Jackson for his birthday), the teaser and theatrical trailers, a look at WETA collectables for the movie and finally, on the DVD-ROM side of things, the script for the 2006 film and the 1996 draft.
Continuing to work backwards, the first disc includes over 38 minutes of deleted scenes, with optional intros from director Peter Jackson. It’s a good thing that much of this footage wasn’t added back in – the elements that would have gone in the first hour (which make up around half of the deleted footage) seem unnecessary (aside from an eerie bit with Denham filming Darrow on the shore of the island and hearing Kong’s roar in the distance) and would have ended up weighing it down. Some of the other footage that would have fit in the film’s second half does provide a couple of good character moments and some extended action, but nothing that seemed like it should have gone back in. There are unfinished FX in these scenes.
A “missing production diary” offers an 8-minute look at the role of video playback in the production and how it assists the actors – such as Black, who’s hilarious talking about his obsession with watching playback of his performances. The remaining production diary on-set featurettes can be found in the “King Kong: Production Diaries” box set.
“A Night in Vaudeville” takes a look at the vaudeville performers seen in the film. “King Kong Homages” shows some lines and other bits in Jackson’s film that were from the original film. Some of the props from the original film are also seen in Jackson’s film.
Final Thoughts: “King Kong” brings Kong to life superbly and contains some solid performances, impressive effects and emotional moments that worked. The picture is noticably longer than it needs to be and some scenes are a little ridiculous even for this, but overall, the movie certainly does entertain – especially in the more brisk second half. This Deluxe Extended Edition DVD set provides a few additional moments large & small added back in the film. Extras include a remarkable, exceptionally detailed documentary on the making of the film, a terrific commentary and a few other odds and ends. Recommended.
The Film B+ DVD Grades