King Kong Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review


    King Kong Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £21.69


    Although massively restored, this King Kong transfer has apparently not been the recipient of a full frame-by-frame restoration process. This means that the most eagle-eyed and determined viewers will no doubt be able to spot individual frames that don't quite meet up to the standards that the majority of the rest of them do. But, to be perfectly honest, if you can find something in this magnificent image worthy of genuinely complaining about … then I'll be a monkey's uncle!

    Presented uncut and in its 1.33:1 ratio (actually turning out at its original 1.37:1 revealing slightly more information in the frame), the film has been encoded via VC-1. In short, it looks fantastic. There is far less damage on show with this image than we have ever seen before. Nicks, tears and pops, and scratches, flecks and hairs have been meticulously removed – and very possibly by hand, although I have no information regarding just how this restoration was achieved, but the absence of digital smearing would seem to indicate a more conscientious approach. Naturally, there are still some vertical lines and age-related contrast waverings inherent to the print, but the cumulative effect of the damage is greatly reduced. Whereas the DVD had lost some details – the wing of a bird here, some foliage there – the BD has been struck with finite care and attention, reinstating these details. Where some of these scratches, smears and stains had once been, the removal process has been neat and well-aligned, resulting in a smooth aftermath that does not betray the tinkering to the print that has taken place. I'm positive that if you go through the film with a fine-tooth comb, you will find such instances, but I stopped short of scrutinising each and every frame. Damage is, therefore, much less apparent than you would expect for a film of such vintage.

    Now, one thing that is very definitely noticeable is that the new image is darker than we have seen it before, with much in the way of flaring whites. Whilst this is terrific for the most part, there are just a couple of the more shadowy scenes – in Kong's cave for one example, and besides the elevated train track for another – that actually appear as though they may have lost some information. The darker portions do seem deeper in these moments, but the contrast is altogether much better, so I am of the opinion that the engineers knew what they doing and to maintain the best levels throughout, this was a necessary evil. Moreover, and to be blunt, I have seen the frames in question separate from the disc in motion and this, unsurprisingly draws attention to the fact. You watch the disc properly, in full motion, and chances are that you won't notice it all.

    The image is naturally soft. Distance shots of the jungle as seen from atop Skull Mountain are quite indistinct, but the delineation on the Venture seen at anchor off the coast as Ann and Jack make their escape, is better than before. So too is the detail on the great gate when we first clap our eyes upon it from the ship's rail. The film can often go from typically soft and somewhat hazy to far sharper than you've ever seen it before. Group shots set against bold backgrounds – Denham, Driscoll, Ann and Engelhorn arguing at the gate just before Kong returns with a vengeance – look great and far more solidly rendered. The rampage in the native village and majority of the New York scenes all benefit from the greater depth and integrity that the bolder shadows allow.

    Detail, on the whole, is therefore noticeably improved. The wind-tussled fur on Kong's back, the spears being flung at him, the rough texture on the rocks that Jack scrambles over in the cave, the wet sheen on the coiling serpent, the costumes, rifles and equipment of the rescue party (love that little wooden backpack marked “Gas Bombs”), and the foreground foliage in general make for a more dynamic image. And the intricacies of the stop-motion animation become even more impressive.

    Where the previous Collector's Edition of Kong featured a SD DVD that struggled to resolve the heavy grain, this 1080p incarnation does a fine job of it. There are moments when it is thick and heavy, but the film is mostly quite smooth and consistently textured. The moment when the crew peer out over the ship's rail into the “confounded fog!” is, well, much foggier than even Cooper or Schoedsack could ever have anticipated. The grain during this scene, as witnessed from the front angle, is exceptionally thick and grimy. Cut to one of the rear angles and the shot is incredibly clean. Now this is the type of discrepancy that you sort of expect in a film all the way from 1933, and yet it is most assuredly not the case with King Kong. In fact, grain fluctuations on this scale are very few and far between, with the image remaining beautifully consistent, incredibly well detailed and smooth, by virtue of the unparalleled contrast and marvellously maintained black levels. The previous SD edition, which this release mimics, was also terrific, but this hi-def transfer reveals greater depth, sharper delineation and far more information in the frame.

    You look at images, stills and photos from the film and that lush jungle always comes across as breathtaking. On the last DVD, the impression of depth was actually very good, I thought. Well, this valuable aspect becomes a little bit more impressive now, courtesy of the deeper blacks, the finer contrast and smoother transitions between the shades of grey. The log crossing, Kong on his mountain-top ledge, the view into the jungle from the great wall, the image of the audience in the theatre as seen from Kong's point-of-view – these and a great many other shots, angles and frames benefit from this. I’ve read accounts of people claiming not to see much difference between this version and the previous DVD - they have got to be joking! I ran the two, flicking as quickly as was possible, given the restrictions of the set-up, between them and the difference, to my eyes, is stark and apparent and extremely rewarding. Sure, there are times when the level of detail may not seem to have been enhanced by much, but the overall cast and depth, shadow-delineation and sheer, textural presence is very noticeably increased.

    With no DNR, no edge enhancement and only the most minimal of artefacts, King Kong looks amazing on Blu-ray.

    King Kong Picture


    King Kong now carries a lossless mono track, courtesy of DTS-HD MA … and you know what? It sounds great.

    This was a film that demanded a vibrant and experimental sound design. And thanks to the revolutionary creativity of RKO's Murray Spivack, it got one. As well as the ebullient, ominous and thunderous score from Max Steiner, the track required multiple effects to be incorporated, from mutated snarls, roars and growls, to gunfire, tumbling sets and crashing timber, to sputtering biplane engines, distant tribal drums and some unforgettable screaming. The soundtrack is, therefore, filled with activity, and all of this comes across very agreeably.

    For a mono track, there is are surprising levels of dynamics and orchestral range. The score doesn't creak and groan under the weight of its boxed-in limitations. The dialogue is very smooth and clear, and it carries less of that raised-pitch, barking shrillness that we all know and usually accept from films of the period. There is little in the way of subtlety, of course, but the contrast and variance in voices is nicely picked-up, and they never sound muffled or squashed at the one extreme, or tinny and mouse-like at the other. Everybody shouts, anyway. Steiner's score is the most emphatic and dominant element in the mix, yet for all of its Wagnerian Sturm and Drang, it never sounds crushing or confused. During Kong's battle with the serpent-lizard in the cave, the music judders a bit in the more aggressively sustained pitch, but this is inherent to the source. Otherwise, Steiner would be pleased.

    The lack of deep bass levels is only missed because we know how this sort of thing sounds these days – well, we've got Jackson's version to prove that, haven't we? Thus, the impacts of Kong's footsteps, or those of the other creatures, the landing of the big log in the bottom of the ravine, the pounding on the gate from Kong's mighty paws and the pummelling that he gives the train in New York hardly come over with any heft at all. However, the sounds of splintering trees, a dislodged boulder and the creaking of the massive wooden bolt under Kong's pressure have enough detail to make up for it. Sirens in New York and mass screaming, and the whump! of flash-bulbs going off have definite presence within the design.

    With age-related hiss and distortion very effectively held in-check, the performance of this restored track enables the film to sound reasonably fresh and clean and exciting even to ears more used to room-filling audio steerage.

    Impressive and faithful. Who can argue with that?

    King Kong Sound


    This release comes housed in a lavish, fully illustrated 36-page digi-book that offers lots of sumptuous artwork, stills and imagery ... and is simply gorgeous.

    Porting over the same extras as the SD DVD edition that came our way in 2005 (minus the nifty menus, art-cards and reproduction of the program from Grauman's Chinese Theatre though), Warner's hi-def package for King Kong swings our without the benefit of anything especially new, or anything that takes advantage of the Blu-ray format. Now, whilst it is a shame that there isn't an interactive PiP track, or a Movie Experience to be savoured – you could have had the option of watching the film with Peter Jackson's Spider-Pit Sequence integrated (just for us fans and not to be taken as the “reimagined Kong”, or a deep-saturated visual FX option that breaks down the picture into its various levels of glass mattes, miniatures, stop-motion and massive sets etc – what remains is, quite clearly, a class act that befits a film of such stature. Basically, although such gimmicks would have been great, the package doesn't actually need them.

    The commentary track is a group affair that places Visual Effects Veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston together, and then intersperses their conversation with interview extracts of Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray. The lion's share of the track is taken up with the two effects guys, who wax lyrical over the film that shaped their lives, pointing out techniques here and there and clearly revelling in the nostalgia of it all. The interview snippets are fine too, and in an ideal world, there would have been several commentary tracks over this, featuring other directors, critics and historians. I mean Peter Jackson, who has admittedly contributed an awful lot to Kong and his legacy already, could have recorded a new track. He did one for Harryhausen's Jason And The Argonauts BD and his knowledge and opinion of this film would have been “possibly” just as insightful as that of Mr. Dynamation, himself. There are some rambling moments, some rather trite fawning and even some mistakes (“Fog Island”, anyone?) from the main two participants, but this is a commentary track that still offers fans and film-lovers with lots to enjoy.

    The gargantuan 7-part RKO Production 601: The Making Of Kong, The Eighth Wonder Of The World, runs for over two-and-a-half hours and is absolutely one of the best ever retrospective chronicles for film that you are ever likely to see. This is right up there with Scott's mammoth Gladiator overview and his own examination of Blade Runner. Featuring fabulous interviews with the likes of Peter Jackson, Ray Harryhausen, Rudy Behlmer, Rick Baker, Bob Burns (who own some original props alongside Jackson), John Burlingame, who discusses the classic score, historian Mark Cotta Vaz, LOTR animator Randall William Cook, FX-siblings the Chiodo Brothers and sound mixing designer extraordinaire Ben Burtt , this is the perfect in-depth study of what it took to get Kong off the ground, the crazy characters who created it and the terrific cast that they corralled, the painstaking ambition of all those involved with the film to have it smash past boundaries and to become the ultimate cinematic spectacle. Of particular note is the reconstruction of Willis O' Brien's lost film Creation, the story read out to us as we watch concept sketches, models and some of the remaining filmed footage flow past our eyes. We hear about the original concepts for the film, the influences from Edison onwards and, of course, we hear about the lost scenes and the censorship that it suffered. An entire chapter is devoted to showing us how Peter Jackson researched and developed the “lost sequence”, and it becomes far more than a director/fanboy wish come true by actually revealing hitherto unknown secrets about the early art of stop-motion, armatures and puppetry. To say any more would be to ruin the endless surprises that this thoroughly excellent and totally engaging documentary provides. One of the best retrospectives that has been made.

    Well, we get to see Peter Jackson's labour-of-love recreation of that now lost Spider Pit Sequence here in full 1080p. Quite a fabulous little chapter of a profoundly grisly predicament that a group of already exhausted and injured sailors find themselves in at the bottom of that chasm that Kong so obligingly hefted them into from that log. Although long consigned to the mists of folklore, Cooper and Schoedsack actually shot the sequence with effects work from Obie, but removed it prior to the film's premier for a couple of reasons. The first was that, coming as it does, right after the bronto-attack, a pell-mell run through the jungle and then the log-twist, and just before Kong's grapple with the T-rex (or Allosaurus, depending upon who you want to listen to), it just wouldn't allow audiences a single chance to draw breath. And they were right, of course – the momentum is already breakneck. And the second, and the one that fuelled a thousand speculative nightmares – especially if you ever read the original novelisation of the film, by Delos W. Lovelace (I have a fabulous reprint from 1977 to coincide with the success of the Guillermin remake) which I grew up with – is that it was simply too terrifying and horrific to witness. Real spiders and snakes were apparently brought in, but Obie and Delgado fashioned some truly grotesque monsters that even some of the crew were afraid to go near. Personally, I think this is a fantastic treat, and it looks extremely evocative and ghoulish. But is it just me, or is Christian Bale down there in the sludge too? ! This terrific feature lasts for 6 minutes.

    Then we get to see some of Willis O' Brien's Creation Test Footage. This is great stuff again, and the 5-minute showreel carries a commentary track from Ray Harryhausen.

    I'm King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper is a great documentary about the pilot, war-hero, POW-escapee, explorer, filmmaker and legend-creator. Lasting for almost an hour, this comes narrated by Alec Baldwin and features input from writers and historians Rudy Behlmer, James D'Arc, Paul M. Jenson, Ray Bradbury, Bob Burns and Ray Harryhausen as well as archival material featuring Cooper, himself, as well as Schoedsack, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray and King Kong, himself. Just kidding about the last bit, folks. But this is great stuff again, that is frank, detailed and trivia-packed.

    We also get one Theatrical Trailer for the film.

    I know that for a film as important and as cherished as King Kong, there was probably a Skull Mountain's worth of material that Warner could have shoved in … and many of us probably wouldn't have complained about any of it. But what we have here is gold-dust, folks. Even if the release only carried the 7-part making-of, this would be worth it. You certainly won't feel short-changed after wading through all of this.

    Awesome. Just awesome.

    King Kong Extras


    King Kong in hi-def for the first time is a cause for celebration. The greatest fantasy production of all-time, and one of the greatest films ever made, it remains a towering achievement of the imagination and a thundering triumph of high adventure, horror and excitement. Whatever messages or subtext critics love to foist upon it – racial backlash, sexual empowerment, ecological rape etc – its makers had no agenda other than to thrill audiences with a story and an experience the like of which they could scarcely dream possible. They brought considerable integrity and pathos to an extremely unusual romance, and did something that most filmmakers today find impossible to do – they made us both believe in, and care about a creature of improbable origin and unfathomable ferocity. With their flair for unabashed spectacle and a relentless pace, Cooper and Schoedsack threw down the template for the cinematic rollercoaster ride that has since become the guidebook Hollywood has turned to every time since.

    They created an immortal icon out of a stop-motion puppet and they invented the scream-queen … and they made it de-rigour to have big monsters trash famous cities. Max Steiner delivered the medium's first bonafide original score, and it remains one of its greatest ever. The imagery that the dream-team of Willis O' Brien and Marcel Delgado painstakingly created is embedded in the mass cultural psyche, and the very name of King Kong inspires fear, wonder, respect … and admiration.

    Warner's fabulous Blu-ray release is something to be cherished even if it does lose some of the cute little extras that its SD DVD ancestor offered. But housed within this lavish book-style package, you'll find a tremendous transfer and an enthralling chronicle of how it all came to be.

    1933 was arguably the most important year in the history of Cinema – it gave birth to the most famous screen monster of all time and it invented the modern action movie. And in all the decades since a giant gorilla first lost his heart to a terrified blonde, the genre has struggled to keep up.

    The overall score might say a 9, but surely no film fan can afford to be without this.

    King Kong reigns supreme!

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £21.69

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