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Film director Carl Denham and actress Ann Darrow arrive on a prehistoric island in the hope of capturing a giant ape, worshipped as a god by the local inhabitants. The mighty Kong shows his sensitive side by falling for Ann, and, after his transportation to New York, rampages across the city in search of his new love.
For more about King Kong and the King Kong Blu-ray release, see King Kong Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on September 27, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, James Flavin, Victor Wong
Directors: Ernest B. Schoedsack, Merian C. Cooper
» See full cast & crew
King Kong Blu-ray Review
Modern filmfans may balk, but I doubt Cooper's classic could look or sound much better...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, September 27, 2010
Spectacle. No, King Kong doesn't make a spectacle of itself. It is a spectacle. Grand, bold, daring... an iconic film of enormous proportions and extraordinary pursuits. More than an early American creature feature, it actually has something to say. More than the granddaddy of visual effects extravaganzas, dazzling artistry and sure-handed storytelling oozes from its every pore. The forerunner of event cinema and one of the first classics to blur the line between fantasy and reality, it's a thrilling remnant of bare-knuckle, Old Hollywood filmmaking that, even some eighty years after its debut, still boasts impressive effects, a haunting adventure and an arresting exploration of man's inexplicable drive to subdue nature. Who would have thought a movie about a giant gorilla -- a movie, lest we forget, released in 1933 at the height of Depression-era socioeconomic devastation -- would encounter such amazing success and capture the cultural imagination for generations to come? Aviator, adventurer, filmmaker and producer Merian C. Cooper and visual effects pioneer Willis O'Brien, that's who.
Whether you've grown old with King Kong, unearthed it from the annals of film history, debated the merits of Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson's inspired 2005 remake (which, for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed) or simply caught its most famous scenes in passing, chances are most everyone reading this is well acquainted with the tale. But for the uninitiated, I suppose a quick overview is in order. When film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), a brave and respectable man who bears little resemblance to Jack Black's cocksure ring master, and demure actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) travel to a mysterious island in the middle of the Indian Ocean (the aptly named Skull Island), they hope to create a film unlike anything the world has seen. Instead, they inadvertently find themselves embroiled in the action. Ann is kidnapped by natives, offered as a sacrifice to a giant gorilla and kidnapped again, this time by the hairy monstrosity itself. Racing to save her, Denham, crew members from the S.S. Venture and the ship's First Mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), discover that a variety of deadly dinosaurs also call the jungles of Skull Island home. But Ann isn't in as much mortal peril as they assume, as Kong becomes utterly fascinated with the fragile female. Inevitably, Jack rescues Ann, Kong pursues the pair and Denham captures the beast. Before Kong can get his bearings, he's put on display in New York, escapes his chains, nabs Ann and ascends the Empire State Building to meet his fate.
Let me be entirely clear though before delving into King Kong any further. Smooth-skinned cinefiles weened on post-60s cinema won't be easily wooed by Kong's Old World cinematography or stagecraft performances. Effective as they may be, Wray, Cabot, Armstrong and their supporting cast are beholden to their specific place in film history, and their grandiose gestures and theatrical expressions date Cooper's showstopper even more than its quaint but endearing stop-motion animation and animatronic effects. Does any of that undermine Kong's resonance or importance? It makes the film less accessible, sure, perhaps even less enjoyable (at least for those who can't shed their modern sensibilities, even for a moment). But it shouldn't, and in this humble reviewer's opinion, doesn't diminish its value as a film whatsoever. Nor should such trivialities prevent anyone from sampling everything it still has to offer. It's frightening to think that a lavish, if not crucial cog in Hollywood's wheel could one day fade from memory, all because movies like Transformers 7: Megatron Finally Does Something have continued to chip away at younger and younger filmfans' appreciation for the hand-crafted productions that made such CG-laden afterbirths possible. Be it Kong's grandiose scale, near-perfect pacing, charming performances, unexpectedly tragic third act or towering primate's undeniable humanity, it deserves to be treasured.
Sermon aside, there's something to be said for the wonder of it all. In an age when actors still -- still -- go on and on about the challenges of performing in front of a green screen, Wray and her Skull Island castmates eagerly hurl themselves into Cooper and O'Brien's abyss. Despite all of its stop-motion glory, exotic sets and unexpectedly gruesome violence (presented in its entirety courtesy of the film's original cut), the true heart and soul of King Kong is nestled just behind Wray's eyes, sits stoically on Cabot's face, beams proudly from Armstrong's posture and at its best in Kong's childlike mannerisms and territorial outbursts. Screenwriters Ruth Rose and James Ashmore Creelman's dialogue is less essential to its core (if only because it's generally used to advance an already simplistic storyline), but the actors and animators' emotions transcend the aesthetics and techniques that shine a harsh light on Kong's seventy-seven years. Through it all, the film's underlying message slices heartstrings like a silent assassin. Kong's struggles, capture and eventual death land some staggering gut punches, and his infatuation with Ann is so convincing that it's easy to overlook his puppet fur and waxy eyes. When he sniffs at Ann's clothes, exacts rage on those would oppose him, touches his own blood in shock, swings angrily at passing planes or takes one last look at the love of his life before plummeting to the ground, there's something intrinsically human about Cooper and O'Brien's giant gorilla; something most other '30s filmmakers and early animators might have neglected altogether.
I know King Kong's audience will continue to shrink in the coming years, but for those willing to remain faithful in the here and now, Warner's excellent Blu-ray release -- meticulously restored to its original black-and-white, monaural glory -- will be a godsend. I've already tucked it away in my collection and plan to revisit it again in the near future. I hope many of you do the same.
King Kong Blu-ray, Video Quality
Beware expectations when approaching King Kong. More to the point, beware uninformed expectations. Cooper's 1933 production is littered with soft photography, spiking grain, murky visual effects sequences and many an imperfect shot, and Warner's 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer stays true to each and every frame. The powers-that-be have not only granted the film an extensive restoration (from a well-preserved duplicate negative no less), they've produced a faithful 1.37:1 high definition presentation; one worthy of praise and even a bit of measured adulation. Soft edges and textures may dominate the proceedings, but a fair amount of fine detail is apparent throughout, grain is intact, delineation is as revealing as could be expected and object definition is relatively impressive. Likewise, black levels are quite deep, mid-range grays are natural and unimpeded, and whites never struck me as stark or ungainly. And the reinstated scenes? The gory bits of chomping, stomping and crushing that were cut in 1938? I didn't notice any discernible difference in quality. As it turns out, the negative Warner discovered and used for Kong's restoration featured the full, uncensored cut. If anything, thick fields of soupy noise occasionally swamp the presentation (chapter 16 and 17 being the worst of it), but I have no doubt the film's source, not Warner's restoration or transfer, is to blame. Some mild artifacting makes an appearance as well, and stands as my lone point of contention. Even then, each instance is so faint and fleeting that it rarely becomes a significant distraction. Ultimately, I would suggest arming yourself with appropriate expectations. Those who do will find Warner's presentation to be a real treat.
King Kong Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Again, expectation is king. The Blu-ray edition of King Kong features a lovingly restored monaural mix and presents it with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio single-channel track. Some will no doubt be disappointed. Why no 5.1 remix? Why are the voices sometimes thin and pinched? Why are the effects so tinny at times? Why no LFE support? Purists, though, will be most pleased with the results. While well removed from sonic perfection, Cooper's film has never sounded better. Relatively crisp, clean and clear, its mono mix accomplishes everything it should and then some, often in spite of its seventy-seven years. Voices are generally intelligible and smartly prioritized, Max Steiner's score sounds better than ever (despite the crowded soundscape) and dinosaur roars and toppling trees are decent, particularly considering the LFE channel sits this one out. I know the track isn't as immersive or powerful as some might crave, but it also doesn't suffer from any errant issues that don't trace back to the film's original elements. I can't imagine a faithful presentation of King Kong sounding much better than this one.
King Kong Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray edition of King Kong may not offer any new special features -- its content was previously included with Warner's 2005 Collector's Edition DVD -- but it's tough to complain when everything on tap is so extensive and absorbing. What lies in wait for filmfans? An excellent seven-part documentary (one that clocks in at nearly three hours), a filmmakers audio commentary, an hour-long Merian C. Cooper biography and other goodies. The only downside is that the disc's documentaries are presented in standard definition. Otherwise, Kong's five-hour supplemental package is the highpoint of an already impressive BD release.
King Kong Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
King Kong isn't just a slice of cinematic history, it's a remarkable, entertaining, dare I say delightful bit of '30s spectacle that deserves to be seen by filmfans young and old. And Warner's Blu-ray release makes owning this stop-motion classic a cinch. The film's extensive restoration and subsequent video transfer is a faithful beast, its DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track is the stuff of purists' dreams and its five-hour supplemental package is worth the price of admission alone. All in all, this edition represents another worthwhile catalog release that deserves a spot on your shelves.
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