KING KONG – Blu-ray review

“King Kong” was one of the early blockbuster titles for the dearly departed HD-DVD format. The disc shipped with each Microsoft Xbox 360 HD-DVD add-on and did solid business at retail for those that had purchased set-top HD-DVD players. The title earned solid scores of tens in both visual and audio for that release and quickly became one of the discs that I would use to show the virtues of the HD-DVD format. However, the high definition format war is over and HD-DVD has been laid to rest after a valiant struggle and roughly one year after the dust has settled, the Peter Jackson remake of the perennial classic is now available on the competing Blu-ray format and it is a marked improvement over the HD-DVD release, but still lacks some of the features that have been made available on DVD.

Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is a film that I have desperately tried to love, but ultimately find myself conflicted as to how much I truly enjoy the film. There are times when I consider the film a tremendous achievement in entertainment and other times when I believe it to be a shining example of modern excess. There are elements of the picture that excite me and things that I wish could have been trimmed to allow the film a far shorter running length. It is a monumental picture that shows that Jackson is one of the finest big budget directors on the planet, but for a man that began with films such as “Bad Taste” and “Dead Alive,” has he gone too far? There is no denying that Peter Jackson’s re-imaging of the legendary film is one of most visually exhilarating films ever brought to audiences. The lush tropics of Skull Island and the detailed fur and scars of Kong exhibit a level of detail to filmmaking that is seldom attempted or achieved, even with today’s filmmaking technology. The recreation of 1940s New York City is breathtaking and wonderful example of how a capable director can use digital effects effectively to bring their visions to life.

The story is about a hapless filmmaker, Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his desires to create a film on the mysterious Skull Island. He tricks his writer/friend Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) to join him on the trip and finish the screenplay. When his first choice of actress backs out, Denham enrolls the help of a young actress named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to become the film’s leading lady. They ship out on a freighter helmed by Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann). The ship becomes damaged as it approaches Skull Island and Ann Darrow is kidnapped and offered as a sacrifice to King Kong (Andy Serkis). Carl is out to make his picture and Jack is out to rescue Ann. Eventually, Ann is rescued and Carl captures Kong to make him the biggest show on Earth.

I still question the casting of Jack Black in the role of Carl Denham. I can imagine many others who would have better suited the part. Jack Black is a funny man and it is hard to believe him as a scruple-less filmmaker. After watching “Mission: Impossible: III,” Philip Seymour Hoffman stands out as a better choice, though I could sit here all day and drop names. Adrien Brody was great as Jack and Namoi Watts was stunning as Ann. Andy Serkis needs to earn more respect as a character actor. He did the motion capture work for Kong and was also the ship’s cook, Lumpy. He is an incredible talent that is unknown to most. Colin Hanks provides a supporting role and I believe will one day be a big star. As far as casting goes, with the exception of Black, “King Kong” is wonderfully cast.

Where “King Kong” is all about wonderment and adventure, the film runs for an overly long 188 minutes and the extended version tips the scales at 200 minutes. This is nearly double the length of the original feature. The added length of the film is to provide further adventure on Skull Island, an entertaining chase scene in the Big Apple and to flesh out the relationship between the gigantic ape and petite blonde that was never established in the original production. Jackson spends a considerable amount of time explaining to the audience the reasons that Kong did not kill Ann Darrow and why she was saddened when the big ape made his final plunge from the top spire of the Empire State Building.

“King Kong” is an experience. The original stop motion picture is heavily expanded to add depth to the characters and bring about a modern revitalization of the wonderment delivered by the original film. The stop motion and effects were considered cutting edge at the time and “King Kong” served to surprise and shock audiences with these effects. The story was minimal, but served the purpose nicely. That was 1933. In 2005, the first “King Kong” is viewed as incredibly primitive and today’s audiences demand more story. Jackson helped solidify this higher set of standards with his brilliant “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The latest “King Kong” pushes the envelope of digital effects and Jackson attempts to make this telling of the story as epic as his Hobbit trilogy.

The end result is an incredibly entertaining film that is a sight to behold. The stampeding herbivores and carnivorous bugs are two scenes that scream of excess. They are entertaining, but drag on forever. Once you’ve seen them, you simply want to move further along and witness the incredible battle between Kong and the Tyrannosaurs. You want to see the amazing chase through the streets of New York and the eventual fight at the top of the world. The film presents a budding romance between Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll and of course, between Ann Darrow and Kong. The film consistently tries to surprise you with incredibly detailed action scenes and it succeeds.

However, by adding in the character arc sequences and the romantic underpinnings of the film, it feels every bit as long as its 188 minutes suggest. With some further editing, “King Kong” could have been one of the greatest action films ever created. It could have been everything that the 1998 telling of “Godzilla” was not. With a two hour running time, Peter Jackson could have created a roller-coaster ride of a film that would not have been as strong in a storytelling sense, but an exciting tour de force that never allowed its audience to take a long breath. I’m sure many would have argued that by removing some of the subplots of the film, it would have not been the picture Jackson wanted, but with the way extended DVD editions sell, the ‘epic’ telling of “King Kong” could have been a profitable double-dipping at retail outlets.

I enjoy “King Kong” and consider it to be a very good picture, but it is a film I cannot find myself falling in love with. The long running time separates it from the typical “popcorn” film and it moves more into the “epic” category. However, there is not quite enough story to be epic. People land on the island. They find monsters. They die and fight the monsters. A big ape takes the girl. The girl is rescued and the ape becomes a freak show on Broadway. The story is good, but ultimately, it just drags on and leaves the audience waiting longer for the great climax.

Video:

As previously mentioned, “King Kong” was the title that I had used to show off the gorgeous picture quality of the defunct HD-DVD format. The film is a visually stunning masterpiece that continues to excel in high definition and while the mastering of high definition discs has improved since Blu-ray has emerged king of its own jungle, it is still an incredibly rich and detailed looking film in 1080p resolution. The original release contained only the 188 minute version of the film, but the 50GB of storage available on the dual layer Blu-ray allows this VC-1 encoded film to contain the additional twelve minutes of footage and the new extended footage looks just as perfect as the material that was previously available. There may have been many titles to arrive in the couple of years since the film first debuted on the exiled HD-DVD format, but I was very happy to witness that “King Kong” is still a title to use to show off one’s home theater setup.

There are a few scenes in the film that really stand out. My favorites include the fight between Kong and the three Tyrannosaur Rex dinosaurs, the street chase through New York City and the finale at the top of the Empire State Building. These are gorgeous examples of how highly detailed and colorful the transfer of this gorgeous picture is. Detail is striking. You can count leaves, pebbles or hairs throughout the film and I’m not so certain that another disc has been released with as impressive of fine detail as “King Kong.” The green foliage of the jungle looks amazing and the black fur of the CGI-rendered Kong is deep and true and you can see the gradients of his fur. Shadow detail holds up well during the darkest moments. The 2.35:1 transfer is simply awe inspiring and the digital-to-digital transfer yields no flaws from either the source materials or the digital compression. I was looking forward to this re-release and I must say I’m impressed.

Audio:

Aside from the inclusion of the longer version of the film and some new supplements, the main noticeable difference is that “King Kong” now comes fully equipped with a next-generation English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. I had lamented that the HD-DVD release did not come packed with a TrueHD mix and although I felt the soundtrack was awe-inspiring, I am only proven wrong in my assessment of that earlier release as this new version of “King Kong” is a marked improvement. The higher bandwidth allotted by the DTS-HD audio mix provides even more of an aural experience for this film and the bass response and usage of the rear surrounds are noticeable more detailed and powerful. Sometimes the sense of more power from a DTS-HD track comes from a ramped up level of volume, but I guarantee that “King Kong” is a better sounding release.

There are numerous sequences where every speaker is pushed hard. From the rainy nighttime sequence when the ship carrying our ill-fated passengers is swept against the rocks to the final scene where Kong is being sprayed by gunfire, “King Kong” is impressive to the ears. Everything from the sound effects to James Newton Howard’s score is nicely replicated and comes across crystal clear. The .1 LFE channel just bumps powerfully and perfectly accentuates the action without ever coming across as too heavy. The scene with the herbivore stampede is a prime example of nicely utilized bass. Small sounds such as breaking twigs and the metallic clank of spent ammo cartridges are brought to life and easily heard. There is as much detail to the soundtrack as there is to the image. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, even through the most dynamic sequences. Rear surrounds are very lively and imaging across all channels is exceptional.

Extras:

I have always held a higher appreciation of “King Kong” that many others and fell prey to purchasing every DVD release of the film and also own the Making-Of box set that was released before the DVD release of the film. Having said that I was greatly disappointed with the bonus features that were contained on the HD-DVD release and I am only marginally more impressed with the offerings of this new Blu-ray version of the film. Universal does get a small pat on the back for including the Extended Version of the film as well as the Theatrical Version. The choice must be made when the disc first boots, but the user may easily switch versions at any time through the interactive menu. That is a huge improvement alone over the HD-DVD version. Universal did include some BD-Live functionality, but it is the forgettable My Scenes sharing that I have yet to find a use for.

The Blu-ray release of “King Kong” does arrive with a Extended Feature Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Pete Jackson and Co-Writer/Co-Producer Phillippa Boyens. This was not available previously on the HD-DVD edition, but was included on the DVD version of the film’s Extended Version. It cannot be played while watching the Theatrical Version, but it is worthwhile to watch the 200 minute version of the film a second time as this is a highly informative and interesting commentary. Jackson is an amicable fellow, but he keeps his commentary quite professional and he and Boyens go into great detail on how some of the films incredible scenes were achieved and the commentary is so informative that it does not make for a very good casual listen. Jackson does inject a little humor, but he is very much about the special effects and effort that went into creating this film and doesn’t take his filmmaking lightly.

Some Profile 1.1 features are also included. A Picture-in-Picture Bonus View supplement is also included that contains much of the behind-the-scenes information that was found on the previous DVD releases, but has been reorganized as small vignettes that are spread across the disc. My largest complaint here is that twenty three pieces of material was carried over to the Blu-ray release, but thirty of the film’s chapters go sans PiP information and it is quite interesting, but sparse at times. There are interviews, behind-the-scenes photography and even some of the video diaries from the making-of release. Overall, this is another solid reason to watch the film, but I would have preferred it to be more readily accessible from the menu. Some Art Galleries are also contained in the “U-Control” functionality, but only eleven of the films fifty three chapters contain gallery information.

Closing:

“King Kong” returns once again to the high definition jungles and reclaims his position as the King. This film was my reference disc for the defeated HD-DVD format, but it reclaims that position with a stupefying Blu-ray release that shows how amazing looking this Peter Jackson directed film truly is. The sound is improved with a very good DTS-HD mix that is one of the best sounding releases you’ll ever lay your ears on. There is a new commentary track and the previous features from the HD-DVD release are carried over, but perhaps the best reason to purchase the Blu-ray release is for the inclusion of the Extended Cut of the film. For the film itself, I like “King Kong.” I really do. I just don’t think I love it. I’m not sure if it is the length, the romantic subplots or the over-excess of two of the film’s action sequences. But, something about this film keeps it hovering at a level just below pure greatness. Maybe it is the casting of Jack Black in a role that does not fit him. This is a title that should have been a 2-disc special edition and I hold hope that one day a truly awesome feature-packed version of “King Kong” will be released, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better sounding or looking Blu-ray title.

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