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Saturday, December 10, 2005

KONG-SIZED REVIEW: King Kong DVD and Kong: King of Skull Island

Funny thing about A Christmas Carol: you never have to had ever read the book to understand the entire story. EVERYONE knows what A Christmas Carol is all about. But how many of us have actually taken the time to sit down with the original novel and enjoy it the way Charles Dickens wrote it in 1843? I finally did that when I was in college years ago: reading it in Dickens' prose, it was an entirely new experience from what I knew about the story from movies and television.

King Kong is a lot like A Christmas Carol: everyone knows its basic story, even if they've never seen Merian C. Cooper's 1933 classic. Just about any small child will tell you that Kong climbs the Empire State Building and fights airplanes and that there's a beautiful woman he's madly in love with. Those are some of the most iconic images in movie history. Yet how many people nowadays have allowed themselves the pleasure of watching the original film?

I first saw King Kong on the local PBS station one Friday night during my senior year of high school. All I'd known about it 'til that night were Kong and the Empire State Building, something about an island of natives and dinosaurs, and of course Fay Wray screaming like mad. If PBS hadn't shown it I've no idea when I would have watched it: in an age before Netflix, the local video stores only carried the 1976 remake. So I microwaved up some popcorn and settled in for the movie. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, especially given the time it was made in. Since that night I've come to believe that the original King Kong is the perfect marriage of good story and special effects. Look how well it holds up even today, when digital cinema has all but replaced stop-motion animation and clever camera tricks. It made such an impression on me that a little over a year later when Jurassic Park debuted, I found myself comparing that movie against King Kong. And between the two, there's no contest: Kong is still king.

Now you know that the original King Kong is one of my all-time favorite movies. Suffice it to say I was delighted when a packaged arrived from Amazon.com five days ago. In addition to a certain something being reserved for Christmas, there were two items that I couldn't wait to get my hands on: the newly-released and LONG-awaited DVD of King Kong, and the hardback edition of the sumptuously-illustrated novel Kong: King of Skull Island. Since arriving here Monday I've given myself a little extra time to enjoy both the DVD and book, exploring all the features and nuances in them, and basically letting myself get drawn again back to the world that I was first propelled into all those years ago. So while we're waiting to see what Peter Jackson has in store for us with his new take on the Kong myth this coming week, here's my double-barreled review of some stuff that's sure to appeal to any Kong enthusiast: the King Kong DVD and the Kong: King of Skull Island book.

King Kong 2-disc Special Edition DVD review

This just might have tied with the original Star Wars trilogy as the most hotly-demanded DVD for release since the format debuted about ten years ago. Well, a little over two weeks ago it finally came out and if Warner Bros. (which owns the rights to the classic from RKO Pictures) was using all this time to bring forth a DVD worthy of Kong, then it was time and effort very well spent: this is without a doubt the most majestic DVD ever to grace my shelf. Anyone looking to release a movie on DVD in the future would do well to study what went into this edition. Just as King Kong set the standard for all the special-effects movies that followed, this raises the bar on what should be expected of a DVD.

First there's Disc One, which contains the movie. You've never seen King Kong like this before, if the only thing you've got in your head is what Turner Classic Movies and the occasional PBS broadcast have given you over the past few decades.

This is where Warner went all-out and held nothing back when it came to restoring King Kong to as pristine a condition as is currently possible. The best film elements were tracked down, the entire thing got digitally remastered. The result: from the moment it first started spinning in my DVD player, I was stunned at how superior the image quality is in this release. This is the best movie restoration I've ever seen. It's an incredibly clean transfer to DVD, with the barest hints of any scratch lines or other sign of age. There is a little graininess apparent in some places, but otherwise you might believe that you are watching a virgin print all the way from 1933. Watching it like this, it's a lot like having watched film projection all your life, and then watching digital projection for the first time. That's what happened to me at the second Star Wars Celebration a few years ago, and that's what experiencing King Kong on DVD reminded me of a lot. The sound quality of the King Kong DVD is as fine as the image quality. This isn't Dolby Surround Sound, but it doesn't have to be: the audio is crisp and clear, and without knowing anything about how they treated this, it sure seems to me like Warner Bros. worked as much on the sound component of King Kong as they did on the visual.

Disc One also contains a collection of trailers for some of Merian C. Cooper's movies, including King Kong. But what is really going to appeal to fans of Kong – and just about every other special-effects movie ever made – is the option to watch King Kong with audio commentary from stop-motion living legend Ray Harryhausen (Mighty Joe Young, Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans just to name some of the movies he's done) and visual effects guru Ken Ralson (the Back to the Future trilogy, the first Star Wars movie, The Polar Express, dozens of others over the years). Interspersed between Harryhausen and Ralston talking about the work that went into King Kong are audio excerpts of Faye Wray and Merian C. Cooper. I'm a big fan of audio commentary – I've loved the ones on the recent Star Wars DVDs – but this one has really resonated with me a lot stronger than most. It's one that I won't mind coming back to again and again in years to come.

Disc Two is the biggest hoot of a supplementary disc I've yet seen. The first thing on it you MUST watch is I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. I watched this documentary on Turner Classic Movies within this past month and it's great to have it included in the King Kong set. Narrated by Alec Baldwin (yeah I could say something about him but I won't, this is about King Kong), it's an hour-long examination of the action-packed life of the man who created King Kong. From aerial warfare pioneer (he was one of the first to forsee the power of aircraft in a military capacity) to World War I prisoner of war, to freedom fighter for Poland, to filmmaker in the most unrelenting places on Earth, and then on to create one of the most enduring legends of the silver screen, Cooper did it all and lived to tell the tale. Cooper would later go on to help plan air raid missions for the U.S. Army in World War II. In a lot of ways, I came away from this documentary seeing how the U.S. Air Force could owe much of its existence to the creator of King Kong... pretty cool, eh?

You'll want to give yourself the full two hours to enjoy the next offering on Disc Two: RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World. It's a seven-part documentary covering EVERYTHING you can imagine about the production of King Kong, and here again, no expense was spared. The daring life of Merian C. Cooper is once again explored, but we are also given an intimate look at everyone else who worked to bring Kong to life, like Ernest B. Schoedsack, who was partners with Cooper (and with whom shared an intense passion for adventure and filmmaking). Much of the story was credited to Edgar Wallace, and the screenplay was written by James Creelman and Ruth Rose (who accompanied Schoedsack and Cooper on many adventures as Schoedsack's wife!). One part of the documentary focuses on Kong's pioneering use of music and sound, owing to the efforts of composer Max Steiner and Murray Spivack (who shares much about Kong's production in interview segments made before his death in 1994). But for me, the most rewarding part of this documentary was seeing the attention given to the man who gave King Kong his life and soul: Willis H. O'Brien, the stop-motion animator who worked tirelessly to make people really believe that Kong was fighting all those dinosaurs, before wrecking havoc in Manhattan. Some of today's most well-known filmmakers and names in movies and special effects – including John Landis, Phil Tippett and Ben Burtt (the Star Wars sound effects wizard) weigh in during this documentary to talk about the effect that King Kong and its creators have had on movies in the seventy-plus years since its first release. That's one thing I found really sweet about this DVD: how many of today's artists pay homage – with a great deal of humbleness – to a lot of people who may not have gotten a lot of credit, until now. Just one more reason why this DVD works on so many levels.

But right now one name is sure to stand out to whoever watches this documentary: Peter Jackson, who's taken his passion for the original movie to daring new heights, not only with his remake (which is said to be intensely faithful to the spirit of the original) but also with some things that he's done outside of production of his own movie. One part of the documentary deals with the long-lost "spider-pit sequence", that was taken out by Cooper after it was shown to a test audience in 1933. Cooper removed it because he felt it was slowing down the movie, and because it reportedly was incredibly sickening to those in the audience. To date no complete cut of the sequence has been located: only a few photographs are proof of its existence. Well it wasn't enough that Peter Jackson finish his own King Kong: he jokes about having to finish the 1933 one also! So included on this disc is a special "re-creation" of the spider-pit scene that Jackson supervised, using many of the techniques that Cooper, Schoedsack and O'Brien used in 1932. There is a making-of that shows how Jackson and his crew at WETA Digital pulled it off. There is also a stop-motion animated sequence of Kong attacking a human that Jackson created, using an armature (the metal skeleton underneath) identical to the one used for the 1933 Kong model. Peter Jackson is all over Disc Two but instead of coming across as an advertisement for his own King Kong, Jackson seems to be all about paying tribute to the original. To me, it seemed like just one more reason to believe why Peter Jackson really is one of the most – if not THE most – down-to-earth filmmakers in the world today.

Stop-motion aficionados will also be interested to know that Disc Two contains footage from O'Brien's earlier effort Creation, with commentary by Ray Harryhausen. There is also a longer segment about Creation in the RKO Production 601 documentary, including its basic storyline.

The King Kong 2-disc Special Edition DVD is available by itself, or as part of a three-movie collection that in addition to King Kong also has the more "cuddly" follow-up Son of Kong and Cooper's later gorilla thriller Mighty Joe Young. Or, you can spend a few extra bucks and get the King Kong Collector's Edition, which has the 2-disc King Kong but also a 20-page reproduction of the original 1933 souvenir program, movie postcards and a few other goodies in a beautiful collector's tin. I might get this one later, if for no other reason than 'cuz I'm a Kong nut. But if you don't care either way whether or not you have the collector's set or a few extra movies, you still can't go wrong with getting the basic 2-disc set of King Kong. After just a few days this has already become one of my favorite DVDs sitting in our rack, and no matter how much I might well-up at Peter Jackson's take on it (I've heard it's a real tear-jerker) the original King Kong is a movie I'm looking forward to enjoying for myself, and with my future children in the many years to come.

Kong: King of Skull Island review
CARL DENHAM: Here's a long sandy peninsula. The only possible landing place is through this reef. The rest of the shore-line is sheer precipice, hundreds of feet high. And across the base of that peninsula, cutting it off from the rest of the island, is a wall.


CARL DENHAM: Built so long ago that the people who live there now have slipped back, forgotten the high civilization that built it. But it's as strong today as it was centuries ago. The natives keep that wall in repair. They need it.


CARL DENHAM: There's something on the other side - something they fear.

-- from King Kong, 1933

Ever since first hearing that exchange onboard the Venture in the original King Kong, I've been fascinated by it. It hinted at a lot of back-story that the movie didn't cover: you could say that King Kong introduced the broad strokes of the brush that George Lucas later used to paint his Star Wars saga with.

It wasn't just the tease about Skull Island either: there are TONS of questions raised by King Kong. Who built the wall, and why? And why the heck is there a gate built into the wall that's big enough for Kong to come through? What was that "high civilization" from which its descendants met with the crew of the Venture? How long had Skull Island been inhabited by humans? Whatever happened to the other young women who were sacrificed to Kong? How did Denham bring Kong into New York City without arousing curiosity or suspicion? What happened to Denham and Kong – and Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll – after the New York City disaster?

And what about Kong himself: What was he? Where did he come from? How did he become the object of worship to the natives of Skull Island?

Right after watching the 1933 movie (but before I began going through the extra features, the audio commentary etc.) I started reading Kong: King of Skull Island, by Joe DeVito and Brad Strickland, with John Michlig. It'd been out awhile (I just noticed that according to its page on Amazon.com that my own review comes exactly a year since it was first published). But after hearing such good word about it for some months now I had to order it along with the King Kong DVD. And I'm glad that I got them both in one shot: this book is the perfect follow-up to – and prequel of – the original movie. It's made for the perfect King Kong experience this past week. I can't imagine going into seeing Peter Jackson's version now after having a better time than the past few days have given me.

I have to say this first: this book was unlike any that I'd read before. It's a real narrative novel, not a "graphic novel" at all (even though it's published by DH Press, an imprint of Dark Horse Comics). But I've never known a novel to be so richly illustrated as is Kong: King of Skull Island. Creator Joe Devito has liberally peppered the pages of his book with beautiful renditions of its characters, paintings of its action scenes, and depictions of Skull Island's unusual wildlife. Some are well-fitting to the accompanying prose. Others are extremely frightening (there is one picture, of something called "Gaw", that especially gives me shivers to look at). All are gorgeous to behold. It's also a huge book: it measures over 11 inches tall by almost 9 inches in width. At 164 pages it feels like it could be twice that length if its dimensions were those of a normal novel. But it also reads pretty fast: I started reading it Monday evening and finished it the following night after spending most of that day at my teaching job. All things considered, it's been awhile since I finished a novel feeling quite as satisfied as I did after reading the last page of Kong: King of Skull Island. For any fan of the 1933 movie, this book is certain to give a Kong-sized amount of pleasure.

And for the Kong purists out there who are wondering about this book’s canonicity, be of good cheer: Kong: King of Skull Island was written with the blessing of the family of Merian C. Cooper. It has received praise from many – including Ray Bradbury – as being a worthy sequel of the original movie. Forget that Son of Kong happened: herein now lies the true story of what happened after beauty killed the beast...

It is 1957: a quarter-century since King Kong went on his rampage through New York City that ended atop the Empire State Building. Within hours of Kong's crash to the ground his body – and Carl Denham – mysteriously vanished. By the late Fifties the Kong incident has been relegated to the status of urban folklore: most people don't even believe that it really happened. The few photographs still existing show an indefinable black mass. In short, there is no physical evidence that Kong really existed, and what memories people had of the event were soon diluted amid the struggles of the Great Depression and the looming threat of war.

Anthropologist Vincent Denham, who was ten years old when his father Carl Denham brought Kong to America, is now searching for answers to the questions he's long had about his long-lost father and his prize capture. A discovery made among his father's personal effects prompts Vincent to approach Jack Driscoll – a little older but on the eve of being a grandfather no less rugged than he was in 1932 – about mounting an expedition to Skull Island. Soon after their ship negotiates the reef guarding the island's peninsula, Vincent is thrown overboard during an attack by the island's vicious wildlife. He makes his way to the beach, is rescued by natives, and comes to be tended to by the mysterious Storyteller. It is she who begins to tell Vincent the tale of Kublai and Ishara: two young lovers who find themselves caught in a power struggle between the island’s two rival factions. What happens to them and the other players that are found on – or make their way to – Skull Island ultimately converge on the central element of this entire story: the magnificent beast-god called Kong.

For anyone worrying that Kong had a miraculous resurrection a'la 1986's disastrous King Kong Lives, you needn't fear: the great ape did indeed die from his fall. But even though he is departed from this world, Kong remains the focus of the tale that began in the movie and continues now in Kong: King of Skull Island. He becomes the device through which is explored not only the wide vista of Skull Island, but the very souls of those entwined in the tale. And it does so with great loyalty to the spirit of the original movie. It also satisfies very well after watching the movie: By the end of the novel, there aren't any questions left from the film that are left unanswered. Everything is accounted for, and given a very believable rationale (yes, including the Kong-sized gate in the wall). If I were to give you two words that describe what happens in this novel, one of them would be "revelation".

The other word would have to be "redemption". On so many levels, this is a story about making an accounting of for past sins... but through forgiveness, not vindictiveness. I'm reminded a lot about the story of Joseph in the Bible: something that started out so horribly wrong ultimately made way for a great good to be done. In fact, this book reads almost like a Christian fantasy/action-adventure saga, with its multiple references to God and how He made His creation, while bringing up the issue of where man's role in all of this is. It’s not a "religious" novel at all, and it's not on a level equal to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, but it's nice to see a spiritual component in a story – especially a story so rich with metaphor as Kong's is – that is woefully absent in a lot of modern fiction.

To sum up: this is a book that you can assuredly leave and feel that the time reading it was time well spent. I can't think of anything else comparable to it that might bring the same kind of satisfaction for the hardcore Kong fan. Kong: King of Skull Island is available in hardcover, and in a softcover trade paperback edition. If at all possible, go for the hardcover: it's the kind of book that deserves its space on the shelf along with the very best classics in your collection.

And so ends my major personal activity of the past week: going a little crazy for King Kong, trying to crank out a review that does both of these items their deserved justice. So if you want to get your paws on some good readin' and watchin' in the buildup to Peter Jackson's new King Kong movie this next week, do yourself a favor and get the 1933 King Kong 2-disc DVD set and the Kong: King of Skull Island novel. You'll positively go ape over them!


Anonymous said...

"I first saw King Kong on the local PBS station one Friday night during my senior year of high school. All I'd known about it 'til that night were Kong and the Empire State Building, something about an island of natives and dinosaurs, and of course Fay Wray screaming like mad. If PBS hadn't shown it I've no idea when I would have watched it: in an age before Netflix, the local video stores only carried the 1976 remake. So I microwaved up some popcorn and settled in for the movie."

Boy do I feel old. :-) When I saw the original 1933 King Kong movie for the very first time, it was also on tv (on a local channel, not PBS) around the mid-1970s. But at that time, there was no such thing as video stores and microwaving popcorn. No such thing as "microwave", period. Oh, I know that the microwave oven existed at that time, but only well to do rich people could afford such a luxury like that. At the time, lower to middle class people simply did NOT have microwave ovens in their homes. It wasn't a common household item as it is today. You'll note some of the popular tv shows that took place in the early-mid 1970s (The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, All In The Family, The Partridge Family, Mary Tyler Moore Show, etc.) in the kitchen area of these sitcoms, there are NO microwave ovens.

By the way, what are your thoughts on the King Kong movies from Japan? To coincide with the release of Peter Jackson's version of King Kong (that is, to get in on the free publicity), the two Japanese made King Kong movies were also recently released on DVD: "King Kong vs. Godzilla" and "King Kong Escapes"


(In King Kong Escapes, a bunch of evil scientists build a robot replica of Kong which King Kong later does battle with). Have you ever seen these movies? If so, do you like them? Hate them?

Chris Knight said...

I've seen "King Kong vs. Godzilla" twice. The first time was 23 years ago when we visited some relatives in New Jersey for Thanksgiving and some TV station there was playing Godzilla movies all day on Friday (our parents and their cousins were off all day in Atlantic City :-) The very first time I *ever* saw King Kong in a movie and it was the scene where the native villagers get him passed-out drunk on fruit juice or something. Then years after that they ran it on Channel 48's Saturday afternoon "Billy Bob's Action Theater" (think Vampira but with Jeff Foxworthy's illegit half-brother). I remember thinking that must have been the cheapest gorilla costume in the history of anything :-) It was prett cool seeing them fight though... even if it DID fly in the face of all good continuity. But hey it did pave the way for such classics as "Freddy vs. Jason" and "Alien vs. Predator" :-)

Anonymous said...

"I've seen "King Kong vs. Godzilla" twice. The first time was 23 years ago when we visited some relatives in New Jersey for Thanksgiving and some TV station there was playing Godzilla movies all day on Friday"

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH memories! :-) The tv station you speak of is channel 9. I dont know what their call letters are now, but back then it was "WOR". From the mid or late 1970s untill 1985, it was a tradition for that channel to air a marathon of Godzilla movies during Thanksgiving (or at least the day after Thanksgiving).

I think WOR was based in New Jersey, but it was in the tri-state area. So people in parts of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut all got WOR, channel 9.

I have no idea why channel 9 stopped showing godzilla movies in 1985. My best guess is the rise of cable tv (and/or the VCR). In 1985, cable tv had a mere handful (about 5 or 6) of channels in New York, but it was growing fast. Cable TV was swallowing up all the good programs, classic movies and tv shows, that used to be shown for free on the local commercial stations.

Chris Knight said...

That sounds right. Mom and Dad left us with this friend of their cousins' from across the street while they went off to act like high rollers in Atlantic City for the day. While my sister played with her Barbie dolls I got a massive overdose of Godzilla flicks. Someday I want to see how "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" ended 'cuz our parents came back and picked us up just before it ended :-)

Brad the Gorilla said...

As I was doing some vanity searches on Technorati, I came across this blog entry. Although I am gruff and surly by nature (i.e. not prone to giving compliments at all), I must grumblingly confess that this is a splendid write-up of King Kong.