King Kong (Deluxe Extended Edition) Review
In most reviews of Peter Jackson’s King Kong you’ll find some reference to the original, so here is mine. I’ve never seen it. Sure I’ve seen clips and no doubt sat down and watched parts of the film in my youth (which I no longer remember with any great clarity), but like the majority of filmgoers prior to seeing Jackson’s version I knew the basic story inside and out, right down to the final Empire State Building sequence. The 1933 original is just one of those films you know so much about without having ever actually seen it, like Citizen Kane or any number of Hitchcock classics, the central themes and iconic imagery will ring true to any movie fan.
For this review you’ll not find any discussion of the changes made in the 2005 re-imagining by Jackson, nor will I go into any sort of plot synopsis as the majority of readers will already be familiar with the film, and the two reviews of the theatrical cut on the site do a great job of covering this for you. Instead my primary focus is on the characters, as these are the most interesting aspect of the film for me as in many ways they both make and break this version in the same way as the hugely important special effects work.
I’ll start with Jack Black’s Carl Denham, an opportunist who knows what he wants and will play god with other people’s lives in order to get it. Black plays this relatively well, suiting the hustle which most of Denham’s early dialogue consists of with his charming grin and rounded edges. Jackson does well to reel in Black’s natural tendencies for overacting and he comes off unscathed as a supporting lead in a non comedic role though his character’s unapologetic contempt for life makes him hard to like. His pairing with Colin Hanks once again (following their work together on Orange County) shows a good partnership but is only really used to apologise for Denham’s nature, with Hanks given little else to do.
Naomi Watts is well cast as a working class performance artist with Hollywood starlet aspirations, and with the right make up and stylists her beautiful blue eyes are brought out to help sell the role. But it’s not just her classic beauty which works for the part, she brings a great deal to it with a commitment to the performance artist background which includes numerous circus style antics. These lead to one of my favourite scenes between her and Kong as the boundaries of their relationship are first laid out. The romance with Driscoll is often little more than a sub-plot which she helps to make larger than life through the schoolgirl glee she brings to the early development of the story, but ultimately it plays secondary to the bond she forms with Kong both due to the under developed screenplay and Brody’s anonymous performance.
As a character Kong is genuinely likeable and the true heart of the story, wearing his emotions on his sleeve the combination of that face which drips with sorrow and the animalistic tendencies they’ve brought to the animation and you have a true beauty and the beast tale which is played out with great affection. Ann’s bond is formed with the beast not through some false attempts at making it more human, but instead by communicating with it on a level which it understands, and in return – and via some of the most spectacular action sequences committed to celluloid – Kong shows his growing favour for Ann by protecting her with his life. These aspects of the story work thanks not only to the characterisation present in Kong, but also due to the wonderful performance by Watts, who never falls into the trap of romantically loving the beast, but merely accepting and understanding him. Once the films moves from its thrill ride middle act and the onus is put on first capturing and then displaying Kong to the world, both of these performances help put you firmly on Kong’s side, to a point I was even cheering on Kong in my head in the hope he’d lay waste to a few more of the despicable humans which make up the expedition. Their utter contempt for life that isn’t their own gels with that of Denham’s and becomes so thoroughly tangible because this kind of cruelty is not in any way far fetched, it’s all too real in the world now (and more so in the 1930s setting) and is summed up by one of the few memorable lines of dialogue in the film “that’s the thing you come to learn about Carl, he destroys the things he loves” when Driscoll refers to Denham’s passion for the mysteries in the world.
Of the secondary characters a much maligned one and quite rightly so is Jimmy, a fairly hapless role given to an actor (Jamie Bell) who can do little with the part and the stilted relationship he shares with Hayes (Evan Parke). With no additional development of the role in this extended cut nor any material suggesting it ever went beyond the depth seen in the theatrical cut, it seems clearer now than ever before that it would have done the film a world of good had it been cut out or re-written with a more subtle approach to the fatherly adoption sub-plot it tries to iron out over the course of the middle act. Hayes instead comes off as a cliché stern authority figure attempting to prevent this young lad from making the same mistakes he did, but we all know how those stories work out in films of this ilk and sure enough, Hayes’ fate is sealed in the fashion we suspected from the moment the plot line was setup. This is just one example of the failed attempts to bring some additional characters to the line-up that we can root for and feel saddened by when they inevitably meet their fate in the jungles of Skull Island. Indeed the only secondary character to really leave a positive impression is that of Bruce Baxter, a wonderful pastiche on movie actors of the time who is brought so ably to life by Kyle Chandler. Much like the character of Denham, Baxter is completely unapologetic, only it’s for his unashamedly dense ego which makes him more of a caricature at times, but it never hurts the film as he provides plenty of well timed humour in a relatively small role, the highlight of which is his heroic antics which see him flying through the air on a vine, machine gun in hand as he’s off to save the day.
Visually the film is quite stunning, combining Jackson’s eye for the grandiose with wide angle vistas showing some awe inspiring visual effects which recreate 1930s New York with nostalgia so obvious in every graphic artist’s mouse finger. The visual splendour continues to Skull Island where an alien jungle habitat is brought to life through a combination of traditional artwork, miniatures and digital art to great effect. Ironically the weakest element on Skull Island is the human touch, with the direction taken with the extras cast as the natives giving way to unintentional humour, so cliché is their look and behaviour. Fortunately the many creatures that reside there are quite a sight to behold, none more so than Kong himself who looks nothing short of spectacular be it close, mid or long range while his interactions with Darrow are beautifully managed and help bring the doomed relationship to life. Where the effects falter in several scenes throughout the movie are not in the models or artistry so much as they are in the composite work. From the early shots of the row boats approaching Skull Island to the most talked about sequence, the Brontosaur stampede these are shots which take you out of the action and into the post production suite where you would either grant them more time to get everything right, or simply remove the incidental moments that aren’t entirely necessary to sell the sequence.
More time is something the film could have done with in general, not up there on the screen but behind-the-scenes, particularly in the script department which fails to do much with anyone beyond the central trio of Kong, Ann and Denham, and even the latter feels misguided with a few scenes that see him lapse out of his otherwise self-centred persona, suggesting there is more to him that never had the chance to be realised. Watching the deleted scenes and documentaries we can see that not only was there several different approaches taken to the character development during the voyage to Skull Island, but the script was being rewritten on the set in an effort to draw more out of the character relationships. These are aspects which drag the film’s opening act down and ultimately make the trek through Skull Island a pointless exercise in tension, as despite the Ann/Kong storyline being handled particularly well with a nice balance between drama and action the secondary storyline is the only area where some genuine tension and sense of loss can be achieved, as we know the outcome of the Ann/Kong story (at least in the sense of both make it intact to New York) but we don’t know who from the expedition will be making the journey back with them. And sadly nor do we care, as the range of characters (Denham and Driscoll aside) are nothing more than fodder for the numerous beasts inhabiting the island. Instead the only surprises come from seeing who gets it and when.
The Extended Cut
Featuring 13 minutes of never-before-seen footage edited back into the movie, this material consists of 3 entirely new scenes and several smaller scene extensions. The new scenes are the most obvious, with the first coming towards the end of disc one as a Triceratops attacks the expedition just after they set off to find Ann. It’s an impressive sequence in terms of special effects, but like the Bronto stampede it precedes some of the interaction is a little clunky and the quick demise of the well armoured beast is wholly unbelievable. The next and most significant new scene is a lengthy sea monster attack sequence on the expedition team which again is visually impressive though a few of the underwater shots are lacking in photorealism, requiring a few more effects passes to truly convince. The final shot which Denham captures on film is however quite superb.
The last major addition to the Skull Island section of the film is a strange ostrich type creature which Lumpy (Andy Serkis) shoots in a similar manner to the large mosquitoes he attacks earlier. All remaining additional material comes in the form of minor scene extensions. Having not seen the theatrical cut for quite some time I couldn’t identify any of these without some assistance (which the disc provides in a few ways mentioned in the DVD section of the review), with the one exception being a comedic scene with some army soldiers in the New York act.
The film is split over the first two discs, with Disc 1 holding the first 87 minutes and Disc 2 the last 115 minutes. There is a wave of copyright warnings and the standard “You wouldn’t steal a car” piracy commercial on Discs 1 and 3, none of which can be skipped though you can fast-forward the commercial. The menus across all three discs are very clean and easy to navigate, utilising the same 1930s visual style of the film’s opening and ending credits to good effect. A nice touch on the chapter menu screens is the inclusion of “New Scene” and “Additional Material” notes to point out where the new footage is located.
Presented in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen the transfer is, as you would expect, very clean thanks to a flawless source print giving way to a beautiful range of colours, spot on black levels and a good level of detail. The film really does look very good in motion with only some minor edge enhancement present and on the first disc, some occasional blocking in the difficult smoke and mist filled scenes as they first approach Skull Island. On closer inspection when acquiring screen grabs for this review I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of fine detail in mid to long range shots, with character faces in the faster action sequences not much more than a blur and the texture rich backgrounds looking somewhat filtered in the distance. The average bitrate is somewhat low given the length of the film and the extra content included on both film discs, which leads me to believe a better visual quality could have been achieved had they stretched this out to a four-disc presentation. The general presentation is however very good, and will satisfy the majority of readers.
In terms of the split, the film does come to a rather abrupt finish on Disc 1 and starts in a similar fashion on Disc 2, but at least Universal had the good sense not to put a wave of copyright warnings on the second disc and thus hinder your quick continuation of the film.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio mix is, like the transfer, generally very good. Clear, active and putting your surrounds to great use throughout Kong is a blockbuster in every sense of the word, and it sounds excellent on DVD. No doubt fans will argue about the lack of DTS until the next big release missing it comes along, but to my ears this Dolby Digital offering will do just fine.
French and German 5.1 mixes are also included, and like the English 5.1 offering are encoded at 384Kbps.
English subtitles plus several other languages are present for the film and all extras.
Spread across three-discs all bonus material is presented in anamorphic widescreen with the same subtitle options as the main feature (English, French, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish).
Audio Commentary – With numerous hours spent commenting on the Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson (Director/Writer/Producer) and Philippa Boyens (Writer/Producer) have plenty of experience on delivering a good commentary track, and once again they team up very well to talk about Kong. Deliberately choosing to not comment too much on the technical aspects of the production which are covered in depth elsewhere on the set, they instead talk primarily about their inspirations on both characters and the plot development (in regards to the changes made over the 1933 and 1976 versions) whilst also taking the opportunity to discuss what they see happening on screen. This in particular I found to be very enlightening, as there is a lot going on between Kong and Ann which I personally do not feel comes across well to the audience, but learning what Jackson was aiming for in the build-up of the relationship and the various turning points makes a lot of sense and ultimately ties in with my overall understanding of the bond they form which I discussed in the main review. Something which is quite helpful is the pointing out of new material in the extended cut, along with the reasoning behind the scenes originally being excised. Another line-of-discussion which is hinted at over the course and then developed in full over the film’s end credits is the reasoning behind the remake and what they took from the experience, while Jackson shows his undying love for the original by saying he’d quite happily make the film again. The commentary is a lengthy undertaking so probably better viewed over two sittings (which the disc change certainly makes easier to arrange) but the track as a whole is a very welcoming and informative exchange of two minds involved heavily with the production and makes for good listening with not too much overlap of the other materials contained on the set.
The King Kong Archives – The bonus material spread across the three discs is completely new, with nothing here present on either the King Kong Production Diaries or King Kong Theatrical Cut releases…
Deleted Scenes (37mins without intros, 49mins with intros) – A total of 16 deleted/extended scenes are presented here with optional introductions by Jackson, along with a general overview introduction also by Jackson. In his introduction Jackson explains the many reasons why scenes can be excised, and also points out that many of the scenes feature unfinished effects work, which as he rightly suggests makes for very interesting viewing as you can see all the various elements which go into the final shots. In the individual deleted scene introductions Jackson puts everything into the context of the movie and also explains why these scenes were taken out, something that I wish every disc with deleted scenes would do. Of the material featured here the vast majority covers the boat journey to Skull Island, showing either alternate character introductions or developments which shape their approach to the island differently. One of the best scenes is a more throwaway piece showing the full dance routine performed by Naomi Watts and Jamie Bell of which only a brief clip made it into the final movie. Once you move beyond the boat voyage the deleted scenes mainly consist of scene extensions and show less deviation, though a little more bloating of the final cut. Usually I find deleted scenes intolerably dull, but thanks to the introductions and the breadth of material here these were a lot more satisfying than usual, while the anamorphic widescreen presentation with near final colour timing helps immensely.
”The Eighth Blunder of the World” Featurette (19mins) – This is a rather lengthy outtakes montage which combines a variety of goofs, from traditional outtakes to on-set horseplay involving the cast and crew and finally, some WETA outtakes created just for fun. I’m actually quite fond of outtake reels as I like to know the film was shot with a good spirit, and the best outtake reels do a good job of showing this and that’s what this montage achieves. Only it does so in a better fashion than most due to the editing which goes beyond just throwing all the goofs into a blender and serving them up to the viewer. Watch out for Jack Black wielding Darth Maul’s twin bladed light sabre, it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment but well worth the wait.
”The Missing Production Diary” Featurette (8mins) – Apparently #59 in the production diaries shot and produced for online consumption, this one we’re told in the opening scroll, never made it online due to the material contained within not being suitable. What it shows is a fairly amusing take on the use of video playback monitors on set, whereby the key male actors have become addicted to watching themselves after a take, and have set up their own group therapy sessions to combat their sickness. It’s all done with good humour and nice to see everyone involved.
”A Night in Vaudeville” Featurette (12mins) – Part of the opening montage in the film are several Vaudeville stage acts, this featurette shows the 2nd unit as they first audition and then shoot various acts for use in the final piece. Essentially these are circus acts by today’s standards and like any circus, they vary in quality, but some are certainly quite good to see in their entirety. One major omission would be the full versions of the acts performed by Naomi Watts and the other cast members from the early scenes in New York.
”King Kong Homage” Featurette (10mins) – This short piece is particularly interesting to someone like myself who is not overly familiar with the 1933 original, as it goes through the film and highlights the various homages and in some cases complete lifts from the original complete with footage for comparison.
“Pre-Viz” Animatics – Four scenes – Arrival at Skull Island (4mins), Bronto Stampede (6mins), V-Rex Fight (10mins) and Empire State Building (10mins) – are viewable in their pre-viz form which consists of the scenes built out of basic 3D models and composed as they are going to be seen in the final film. A very popular tool in films today these scenes are available to view with or without the musical score to help aid the dramatisation, and all prove to be quite exciting to watch while at the same time showing us the work that goes into blocking out scenes and arranging shooting schedules on effects heavy productions. Of most interest is the V-Rex fight, which actually features a slightly different take on the battle between Kong and the trio of dinosaurs, with the handling of Ann not as it is seen in the final version. The Empire State Building scene is also available to view in a split-screen against the final version and makes for particularly interesting viewing as in the audio commentary on the main feature, Jackson and Boyens inform us this scene was used to help show Universal the direction they were taking with the feature to Universal. It is very close to the final version, which is quite a testament to their vision given the time between its inception and the final cut being completed.
”The Present” Short Film (10mins) – As a surprise for Peter Jackson, Jack Black and the principal cast members worked on this short film in between the Kong shooting schedule and then presented it to him on his birthday. Essentially it’s them having some fun and letting their hair down, shooting a short film in which a present makes its way through the various cast members as they dispatch of each other in a bid to possess whatever may be inside. It’s hugely entertaining and a welcome feature on this set.
”Weta Collectibles” Featurette (5mins) – Lusted over by collectors around the globe, WETA have carved out a lucrative side-business with their line of statues and collectible movie goods and this featurette takes a look at those produced for Kong.
Trailers – The original Teaser, Theatrical Trailer and Cinemedia Trailer (which is more of a promotional mini-featurette with talking heads interviews cut in with trailer footage) are all included, presented in anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 audio.
DVD ROM: 1996 & 2005 Scripts – Pop Disc 2 into your PC and the scripts for both the 1996 vision and the 2005 reality are available for your reading pleasure.
Peter Jackson Introduction (3mins) – Jackson introduces the content found across the set, highlighting not only the documentary found on the third disc but also the material on the first two. He also points out that all of the material here is new.
Recreating the Eighth Wonder: The Making of King Kong (3hrs 6mins) - This extensive documentary can be viewed in its entirety or through a selection of chapter stops which are covered below…
Peter Jackson Tease Introduction – This is just a short introduction to the documentary which plays prior to the first segment, which is…
The Origins of King Kong (16mins) – Jackson and the team at WETA take a nostalgic look back at the work initiated in 1995 when Universal first commissioned them for a remake. The film they began work on was not only very different in terms of the script and characterisation, but also looked very different in terms of the effects work, with Kong envisioned as a completely animatronics beast for which some considerable preparation work was undertaken. This short piece is an interesting look at what could have been, and also what might not have been had Universal not dropped it, freeing up Jackson and WETA for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Pre-Production Part 1: The Return of Kong (42mins) – This lengthy segment of the documentary looks at the period of time from when the project was first revisited with Universal asking Jackson if he was interested during the late stages of his work on Return of the King, through to the months of work done at WETA following this as they prepared for the task at hand. Literally thousands of paintings were produced in this time, along with hundreds of maquettes and four of five pre-viz sequences which are all covered in a free-flowing form consistent with the rest of the features on this set, breaking down months of work and large quantities of information into engrossing and always entertaining chunks. Like their work behind-the-scenes the WETA guys have really got these talking head interviews down to a precise science, and never overload the viewer with technical information, while the editing between interviews, footage from meetings at the time and various visual aids such as the pre-viz sequences (of which we see earlier takes on the V-Rex/Kong battle) and numerous artworks and models is always expertly handled. Another highlight of this section is the footage from the teams visit to New York and the Empire State Building, with Naomi Watts also present to offer some thoughts whilst the photographs and commentary by her and Jackson from their visit with Fay Wray is very touching and genuine.
Pre-Production Part 2: Countdown to Filming (16mins) – I never actually spotted a title card for this segment of the documentary, and as such it blends in very nicely with the first pre-production segment. Essentially this shorter piece covers the time roughly one month prior to the start of production during which the actors began arriving, and looks at the various schooling they underwent from Naomi Watts dance lessons to Andy Serkis cookery seminar (eeeewww, sheep’s brains!), and the heavily male dominated section of the cast having some fun with Tommy guns, finding their sea legs and even producing some short films with the camera used by Denham in the film. These are actually a lot of fun and continue in the same spirit as “The Present” on disc two, showing a good camaraderie on the set.
The Venture Journey (22mins) – If like me you thought the aerial shots of the sea voyage were generated entirely in the digital realm then you’d be wrong, as this segment shows us they actually bought, restored and modified a 1950s heap and took it out of Wellington harbour to capture various exterior shots. Upon this same design they also built a large portion of the vessel on a soundstage for the majority of shooting to take place, and then there is also a 14ft/12th scale miniature which was produced for the crashing around that takes place when they reach Skull Island. This section of the documentary covers all of these various incarnations of ‘The Venture’ ship and the work that went into the production, along with a look at the horrendous composite work asked of the WETA team for the rowboats which take the crew from ‘The Venture’ to the island. Scary stuff indeed, as these shots are among several which I think never quite work in the film.
Return to Skull Island (30mins) – From the hazardous jungle to the numerous dinosaurs and creatures found within, this segment looks at the many elements which combine to create the living breathing world of Skull Island. Included are some of the best layered element shots I’ve seen, where they’ve angled the various elements (live-action, miniatures, matte paintings, digital assets etc) and build them up on top of each other – sometimes in motion – showing us how the dense jungle backdrop is achieved throughout the film. Elsewhere the various creatures are documented from the design process through to the digital creation and how – through digital doubles and carefully captured live-action footage – they are combined to mostly realistic effect with the characters in the film. Once again this is an informative piece without overwhelming the viewer, and instead often giving a greater appreciation to what is seen on screen through knowing the work that went into the design.
New York, New Zealand (26mins) – As if building all the miniatures for the jungle wasn’t enough work, another large part of the production team set out to recreate downtown Manhattan in a spacious area of New Zealand. Building the set to roughly 20ft high the rest of the city was painted in digitally and this segment of the documentary gives a thrilling tour of the program they designed in order to build many hundreds of miles of New York cityscape circa 1933. Honestly, if you like watching your city grow and develop in games like Sim City you’ll get a real kick out of this, the level of detail and complexity present in the work is staggering and for me results in some of the most stunning shots of the film, with the ground level New York shots looking quite spectacular. Also covered and making for some very entertaining viewing is a look at several cameos in the film, all found piloting the bi-planes and in many cases undergoing facial hair removal for that anonymous look in the make-up trailer. Jackson in particular looks entirely different sans facial hair, and utterly hilarious with just a moustache, and this part of the documentary captures his amusing reactions to losing a beard after 12yrs with good humour.
Bringing Kong to Life Part 1: Design and Research (48mins) – The longest section of the documentary gives way to the design process involved in coming to the final design of the single most important, make or break aspect of the feature, the king himself, Kong. At times the material featured here is utterly fascinating, witnessing the commitment Andy Serkis brought to the role (insurance wouldn’t cover it so he jumped on a plane to Rwanda on his own dime to see Gorillas in their natural habitat) to the many stages of the technical design and how these elements combined brought about the final majestic creature we see on screen.
Bringing Kong to Life Part 2: Performance and Animation (26mins) – In the same way as the earlier pre-production segments, these two parts of the same section blend seamlessly with this shorter part proving to be just as engrossing as the former, focussing squarely on the role Serkis played on set and in the motion capture studio to help bring Kong to life. At first it’s quite surreal to witness Serkis on set jumping around, microphone attached and roaring with all his might with the aid of a sound crew who are amplifying and adjusting the tone to help aid the cast who in turn are acting off Serkis’ performance. I’m sure it was equally surreal for the cast when he first appeared on the set, and this aspect of his work is covered in detail with Naomi Watts in particularly very gracious in showing how much Serkis’ work helped her on set, something I think shows through immensely well in the film. Perhaps quite obviously there are many references to Gollum, as the stages which helped bring that character to screen so effectively are essentially recreated here, only a greater emphasis is put on the animation due to the fact Kong has no voice through which to project his emotions. This last section of the documentary also winds down with some final words from the cast and crew, most of them focused on the dream come true aspect of the film for Peter Jackson.
DVD Credits (5mins) – This credit reel for the DVD set plays automatically once you reach the end of the making of documentary, and is viewable separately from the main menu on Disc 3. As a little incentive there is a great song playing over the credits entitled “Kong” which is performed by Jack Black, Lobo Chan and The Elvish Impersonators.
Conceptual Design Galleries (41mins) – Five video galleries comprise of scanned concept designs and paintings, technical drawings, photos of various miniatures and maquettes at different stages in the design process and in the New York section there is another look at the computer program at work which helped to build up New York of 1933. These galleries are edited together and are accompanied by James Newton Howard’s original score. The sections break down as 1996 King Kong (10mins), The Venture (4mins), Skull Island (16mins), New York (4mins) and Kong (7mins). The content is often quite beautiful to view and is certainly presented well, but I have to say this section of the disc is the one area I chose to skip through (the great thing with video galleries as opposed to still galleries is you can view them on fast-forward!) as the content is exhaustive rather than well chosen and presented in context like much of the pieces seen here are in the documentaries.
Over the course of three days I watched the film, listened to the commentary and watched some six odd hours worth of documentaries, featurettes and other bonus material. The key point here is that not once did I tire of the extensive content on this set, which has been produced with such care and also devised so as to present the viewer with material that is entirely new to anything else released on disc thus far on other King Kong DVDs. This attention to the consumer coupled with the overall quality of the bonus content makes this one of the single best DVD sets I’ve had the pleasure of covering, and has got me thinking that those Lord of the Rings Extended Editions I have sitting on my shelves really ought to be explored beyond the main features and the one out of however many commentaries included that I’ve so far managed to listen to. Sometimes what can start out as a daunting task of reviewing such an extras laden set proves to be a welcome blessing, as in most cases I rarely make the time to watch the bonus material on DVDs. In this case I’m glad I did as it not only informs and entertains, but it helps bring a greater appreciation to a film which never quite reaches the heights it aspires to scale. And that is what all good DVD sets should do…